AS foot-and-mouth disease reappears in northeastern England, farmers are warned not to become complacent

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Farmers in Northumberland in northeastern England thought they had put the foot-and-mouth epidemic behind them.

But in the last three days, eight new cases have been confirmed in an area that had been disease-free for nearly three months, leading to calls Monday for continued vigilance. Two more cases are suspected, officials said.

The new outbreak has also frightened Northumberland's neighbors in Scotland, and those farther away in Ireland, which has thus far escaped the epidemic but remains fearful that it could wipe out the nation's crucial agriculture industry.

``Everybody is aware that the infection is still out there, and yet it seems to have caught us out once again ... We wonder how far the disease has spread,'' David Smith, chairman of the National Sheep Association, told the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Radio 4 program.

All seven new cases are in a 400-square-mile region near Hexham, Northumberland, where animal movement restrictions were due to be lifted within weeks. But now sharpshooters have been called out again to kill potentially-infected cattle, and footpaths have been closed. Disinfectant foot mats and sprays were reintroduced at all farms, and police began patrolling to make sure that no animals were moved illegally.

The new outbreak brings the total number of cases of foot-and-mouth disease to 1,979 since it first appeared Feb. 20 among pigs at a slaughter house. The trickle of new infections is proving stubbornly hard to halt, with an average of two new cases being confirmed each day.

At the epidemic's height, the average was 40 a day.

Almost 3.8 million sheep, cows and pigs have been slaughtered in a bid to contain the disease, which is harmless to humans but diminishes animals' productivity and ruins export markets.

In Scotland, where farmers hope to regain their export licenses within days, the re-emergence of foot-and-mouth just south of the border was cause for concern.

``What the Northumberland outbreaks show for people north of the border is that they cannot afford to let their guard drop,'' said James Withers, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

``Scotland will remain free as long everyone remains vigilant to the risk of possible new cases. The message has to be that there is no room for complacency.''

The Irish Government said the outbreak in Northumberland was a timely warning to Irish farmers that the disease still posed a major threat.

Only one outbreak was recorded in Ireland, on a sheep farm in County Louth close to the border with Northern Ireland, but tens of thousands of animals were slaughtered as a precaution.