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Foot-and-mouth disease: controlling outbreaks

Better understanding of foot-and-mouth disease offers potential for alternatives to culling

5 May 2011

  Foot-and-mouth disease: controlling outbreaks

Video transcript - Video and audio help - Watch video on YouTube

Research published in the journal Science shows that scientists have uncovered a window of opportunity when it is possible to identify cattle infected with foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) before they become infectious and/or show symptoms. For the first time, it has been shown that the period in which cattle are infectious, but before they show clinical signs of disease, is much shorter than previously thought (Ref 1).

Computer-generated image of the foot-and-mouth disease virus. Image: IAH

Computer-generated image of the foot-and-mouth disease virus. Image: IAH

Researchers at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), which receives strategic funding from BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), who completed the research along with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh are now working with Defra (UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) to see if this window of opportunity can be exploited to reduce the number of animals that are culled during an outbreak.

The research was funded by BBSRC as part of its Combating Viral Diseases of Livestock Initiative. The initiative aims to further our understanding of damaging livestock diseases that cause significant economic, welfare and food security challenges.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC says foot-and-mouth disease has had a devastating impact in the UK in the past. “It is this thorough understanding of the causes of animal disease that will underpin future food security in the UK and ensure that we can maintain a healthy farming industry.”

Cattle control

Now that, in theory, diagnosis of FMDV infection could be possible during the time (approximately 24 hours) before the animal becomes infectious, this short window of opportunity might be exploited by further development of effective and efficient in-field diagnostic tools that can detect the virus as early and as accurately as existing laboratory techniques, which at present are the only routine used ways to detect the disease.

Cattle are  infectious for less time before the show clinical symptoms. Image: IAH

Cattle are infectious for less time before the show clinical symptoms. Image: IAH

Dr Bryan Charleston who led the team at IAH says he hopes the discovery will enable future refinement of the methods we use to control FMDV in the UK and beyond. “But there are a lot of other variables to consider before it is possible to come up with a new control strategy.”

Charleston stresses the need for practical tools for pre-clinical diagnosis and at present there is no affordable and reliable test to use on farms. “We now need to develop the technology further with Defra in order to realise the potential benefits and possibly reduce the number of animals culled during an outbreak,” says Charleston.

During the 2007 FMDV outbreak preclinical testing of animals not yet showing signs of the disease was completed every second day and was successful in identifying infected cattle that were not showing clinical signs. “This type of testing was successfully applied during the 2007 outbreak in Surrey on the basis of studies at IAH, including the early results of this research,” says Charleston. Overall, it’s an example of how close interaction between the research and diagnostic laboratories at IAH can accelerate the application of high quality science.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, who led the University of Edinburgh team, says we now have an opportunity to develop new test systems which can detect infected animals earlier and reduce the spread of the disease. “We now know that there is a window where, if affected cattle are detected and removed promptly, there may be no need for pre-emptive culling in the immediate area of an infected farm.



Ref 1: Relationship between Clinical Symptoms and Transmission of an Infectious Disease and the Implications for Control (external link)

About the Institute for Animal Health

The Institute for Animal Health, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is a world–leading centre of excellence for research into viruses of farm animals, principally cattle, poultry, sheep, pigs and horses. Our research extends from fundamental to applied research, from genes all the way through to animal populations. It is our belief that better control of viral diseases requires a greater understanding of how each virus causes disease, how the immune systems of the farm animals respond to infection, and how the viruses spread, including those distributed by insects and other arthropods. In this way we contribute to the development of smarter, more effective vaccines; develop more discriminatory, user–friendly diagnostics; provide diagnostic services; and give expert knowledge to guide policy makers and farmers.

The Institute for Animal Health is currently undergoing a redevelopment with £100M investment by BBSRC thanks to additional funding from the department for Business Innovation and Skills. This follows extensive reviews of the UK's needs for animal health research to help ensure animal welfare and contribute to global food security.

About Global Food Security

Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments.

Through Global Food Security the partners are working together to support research to meet the challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable,  and secure supply of safe, nutritious and affordable high quality food from less land and with lower inputs.

Partner and sponsor organisations are:

  • Research Councils UK – comprising:
    • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
    • Economic and Social Research Council
    • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
    • Medical Research Council
    • Natural Environment Research Council
  • Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Department for International Development
  • Food Standards Agency
  • Government Office for Science
  • Scottish Government
  • Technology Strategy Board

For more information about the food security challenge and Global Food Security visit: