It has been fifteen years since the last major Epizootic outbreak in Northern Ireland (NI). The 2001 foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak led to the culling of thousands of animals and the loss of millions to the economy as a result of the negative impacts on the livestock industry, trade and tourism.

Officially, there were some 2,000 cases of FMD in the 2001 outbreak across Britain and four cases in NI. The disease exacted a horrendous toll both on livestock and their owners. By the end of the outbreak more than six million sheep, cattle and pigs had been slaughtered across England, Scotland, Wales and NI.

Could it happen again?
While FMD is currently not in Europe it is rife in Turkey with outbreaks also in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). With large movements of people in this region, the amount of untreated products of animal origin from MENA into southern Europe and beyond is difficult to quantify. FMD virus can survive in partially cooked meats for months; therefore, continuing diligence is needed to prevent a repeat of the devastation caused by FMD in 2001.

What are the main Epizootic threats at present?
Farmers and vets today aren't just on the lookout for FMD, but also a range of Epizootic diseases, including Bluetongue (BTV) in sheep and cattle, Avian Influenza in poultry, African Swine Fever in pigs as well as new and emerging diseases, including virulent forms of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea PED.

Bluetongue virus serotype 8 (BTV-8) has recently re-emerged in central France, despite being undetected on mainland Europe for at least five years. To date, France has reported over 170 outbreaks in the center of the country and mainly affecting cattle. There have also been cases in Austria.

A recently published risk assessment reveals that the southeast region of England is at risk of an outbreak of BTV this year during the spring or summer months, with a higher risk of an outbreak in late summer. This would be the result of infected midges being blown across from France.

While the direct risk of BTV to NI remains low at present, farmers have an important role to play in helping to keep the disease out. The most likely route of entry is by importation of infected animals or germplasm (semen or ova), especially imports from France or other affected areas. Robert Huey, the chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland, has this message for livestock keepers and importers:

“It is vitally important for trade that we continue to keep all the main Epizootic diseases out and one of the main threats at present is Bluetongue. The main risk to our industry continues to be the import of infected animals, particularly in light of the continuing spread of disease in France and elsewhere on the continent. It is essential that farmers think carefully when sourcing animals and consider the consequences that would follow should they import infected stock. The effects would be felt not only by themselves, as compensation would not be paid to them, but also by the entire industry.”

The recent outbreak of Avian Influenza in Great Britain (the fourth in 15 months) highlights once again the very real risk posed by this disease. France is also currently dealing with a large outbreak of highly pathogenic Avian Influenza, H5N1 in poultry in the southwest part of the country. The French authorities have put in place a wide restriction zone and an eradication plan for the next few months but to date the outbreaks have not been fully contained.

While conscious of the risks of importing infected stock, Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland Dr. Perpetua McNamee also highlighted the need for good biosecurity, constant vigilance and early reporting of disease. She said, “Effective biosecurity measures will always be a key factor in preventing the introduction and spread of Epizootic diseases. The recent outbreaks of Avian Influenza in Britain, France and elsewhere on the continent highlight the importance of high standards of biosecurity, constant vigilance and early reporting so that, Epizootic disease can be ruled out or, if present, tackled at source before it can spread.”

African Swine Fever is now well established in west Russia, the Baltic States, northern Ukraine and eastern Poland. The disease is spreading in all directions and poses a risk to the pig industry. Also the virulent form of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) is currently prevalent in North America and can cause high mortality in naive herds. Seneca Valley virus, which belongs to the same virus family as FMD and has similar clinical symptoms, is also causing concern for the pig industry.

To date, the actions of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Veterinary Service and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland have been successful in keeping out Epizootic diseases such as BTV from the whole island of Ireland. However, there is no room for complacency, and it is vital that the necessary precautions are taken to ensure this success is maintained. It would only take a single lapse of biosecurity or the irresponsible importation of infected animals to trigger a major Epizootic outbreak in NI, which could shut down trade and cost the industry millions.

Further information on the clinical signs of the main Epizootic diseases can be obtained from the DARD website.