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China turns blind eye to foot and mouth allegations

25-May-2005

Officials continue to remain tight-lipped over reports of a foot and mouth (FMD) outbreak outside Beijing - as the country takes precautions to avoid another bird flu pandemic, Tom Armitage reports.

Officials at the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that they were not aware of any outbreak of the highly contagious disease, despite reports suggesting the contrary.

Indeed, over 2,000 cattle have reportedly been slaughtered in Yanqing (a district to the northwest of Beijing) and quarantine conditions have subsequently been put in place.

 

Despite recent pledges from the Chinese authorities to be more open in reporting infectious disease outbreaks, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO ) and also Beijing's Office of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine have not yet been notified.

 

In 2003, the country's government was widely criticised for failing to report the full scale of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) - after which it issued an uncharacteristic public apology.

 

Earlier this month, however, China reported FMD outbreaks in the northern and eastern provinces of Shangdong and Jiangsu to the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE ) - although officials in the Chinese animal feed industry have since said that the disease could be active in at least 10 additional provinces.

 

Meanwhile, China's heavily controlled media has been forbidden to broadcast news of the outbreak - widely interpreted as a thinly veiled attempt to protect its domestic beef and pork export industries, estimated to be worth US$230 million.

 

The UK's highly publicised foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 saw the destruction of 4,047,000 cattle and cost the British farming industry an estimated £2.4 billion (US$4.5 billion) - as well as damaging the meat industry's reputation abroad and adversely affecting export sales.

 

The symptoms of foot and mouth disease (FMD), which affects all cloven-hoofed animals (cattle and swine), can include blister-like legions on the feet, tongue and udders and although the disease is not fatal, it can leave animals severely debilitated and with lowered milk yields.

 

There are seven major sero-types (a group of microorganisms that can be grouped together by the antigens they contain) of the FMD virus (which is an apthovirus of the family Picornaviridae): A, O, C, Asia 1 (the most contagious), and Southern African Territories (SAT) 1, 2 and 3, in addition to over 60 documented sub-types.

 

The virus can attach itself to truck tyres, clothing and equipment in mechanical transmittal, as well as being transmitted through aerosol transmittal (animal to animal).