Disease puts zoos, universities and farmers on defensive

Thursday, April 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Fear of foot-and-mouth disease has friendly Midwestern farmers pulling up their welcome mats. Zoos and theme parks around the country are posting warning signs. Some universities are canceling overseas exchange programs and even quarantining foreign students.

Around the nation, Americans are closely examining their own cows, hogs - even giraffes - while also watching for anybody or anything that could carry into the United States the highly contagious disease ravaging Britain's livestock.

And just in case foot-and-mouth strikes this country for the first time in more than 70 years, officials are drawing up worst-case scenarios, from destroying entire herds of cattle to mobilizing the National Guard.

``I wake up nights thinking about it,'' said Gene Eskew, a veterinarian for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. ``This particular virus is the most contagious in the world.''

Foot-and-mouth is dreaded because it can be transmitted so easily _ by dirt on vehicle tires, clothes, shoes, even in the air.

The virus is harmless to humans but destroys animals hooves and causes mouth blisters that ruin their appetite. The United States has not had a confirmed case since 1929.

In Britain, more than a million animals have been condemned to slaughter in an attempt to contain the outbreak, and restrictions have been imposed on tourism events and the movement of animals.

The United States has already banned imports of livestock and raw meat from Europea. Now, many of the precautions are aimed at international travelers.

Zoos from New York City to Chicago are posting signs asking visitors who have been overseas recently to avoid petting zoos or other areas where they can come in close contact with animals. At the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Fla., visitors step into a disinfectant shoe bath before boarding buses for tours where they can feed giraffes and get close to other exotic animals.

Many farm states are canceling agricultural tours that bring in visitors from out of town or overseas.

In Illinois' Rock River Valley, farmers are redirecting foreign tours to livestock-free attractions such as the John Deere home. Agriculture officials in Wisconsin advised farmers to stop the tradition of inviting visitors to tour the farm and have breakfast in celebration of dairy month. Officials suggested gatherings instead be held in town this June.

Phil Klink, who had 4,000 people on his farm for last year's breakfast, said that this year the fun just isn't worth the risk to his 140-cow herd. ``We were looking forward to having it, but it's better to cancel it now,'' Klink said Thursday.

Leading agriculture universities across the Midwest are isolating students who have been abroad until the risk of contamination is over and restricting access to school farms.

Seventeen foreign students who came to the University of Minnesota began their training on farms this week after cooling their heels for eight days at a suburban St. Paul hotel.

``We had the students wash their clothes so there would be no fear of that. The host farmers were going to purchase new work shoes for them. We asked them to blow their noses quite often. Evidently the virus can reside in the respiratory system,'' said Steve Jones, director of the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee program. ``By the end they were a little bored, but they understood the potential threat.''

At Illinois State University, officials posted a big sign outside the university farm in Normal that reads: ``STOP. Bio-Security Area. If you or an immediate family member have been out of the United States in the past 14 days, do not pass this point.''

From the nation's farms to meatpacking plants, livestock handlers are double-checking to make sure the animals they deal with are disease-free.

In Kentucky, officials are inspecting cattle trucks along the interstates, checking papers for the animals' origins or any signs of foot-and-mouth. At an auction barn in Galesburg, Ill., this week, employee Rick Grappe dodged the tossing heads and flying hooves of cattle to study each animal before its sale, looking for telltale blisters on their noses.

``I don't want to see them. It would scare me and scare the whole country,'' Grappe said.

State officials are working with U.S. agriculture officials and law enforcement personnel to plan for any outbreak. In most cases, the state veterinarian would quarantine the affected farm and consider stopping the movement of animals within the state's borders. The herd would almost certainly be destroyed, and people, equipment and vehicles would have to be disinfected before being allowed out of the area.

West Virginia plans to call out the National Guard if an outbreak occurs there because the guard has heavy machinery that could help quickly bury the large numbers of animals likely to be slaughtered. Workers disposing of the animals would have to be quarantined until the job was done.

Related Links:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

American Zoo and Aquarium Association

Illinois State University