Twenty years on from FMD 2001 – Scotland’s Chief Vet remembers

Today (19 February 2021) marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001 – the worst the UK has ever experienced recalls Sheila Voas, Chief Veterinary Officer (Scotland).

Sheila writes: “This is, in no way, an anniversary to be celebrated, but I’m sure that many people, like me, will be remembering and reflecting on the horror, the pain and the devastation caused to farmers and to those working closely with them.

They will also be remembering the effects on the wider rural community, as the countryside shut down and tourism decreased substantially.

And who will ever forget those images of pyres burning in the night, or the silence that was so loud in much of the countryside.

Despite the significant impact on rural communities, and indeed across much of society, there is no doubt that those at the frontline of dealing with the epidemic, and those with susceptible livestock, felt the effects most acutely.

Vets and farmers, their families and friends, other agricultural industries such as feed suppliers, all suffered tremendously, and many still bear the scars 20 years on. I have farming friends who mark the passage of time as “before FMD” and “since FMD” and there are plenty of vets still traumatised by what they saw, and did, to control the epidemic.

Of course, we must remember that it’s not just those who lost animals to the disease that suffered. In many ways those waiting at home looking after their livestock had just as tough a time, never knowing if or when the disease might reach them and coping with movement restrictions and loss of export markets.

Many shut themselves off from their communities to try to protect their livestock, in a way that has strange parallels with Covid 19, during which people have isolated themselves again, this time to protect themselves and their relatives.

However, while we remember the outbreak and all that was lost because of it, we should also reflect on the good that has come about as a result, with the aim of preventing such a disaster from happening again, at least in scale.

For some these rules will be seen as burdensome and bureaucratic, but for those who remember FMD there is also an understanding of why, for example, livestock standstills are necessary to create a space in which any disease present can be detected before it is further spread to other premises; and why biosecurity is important at all stages of animal production from farms through markets and on to slaughterhouses.

We have also learned a lot about mental health and the ongoing toll amongst farmers and vets. I personally still have nightmares about that time and remember with real horror having to tell a dairy farmer that all his cows – genetics built up over generations – were going to be slaughtered; and the futility I felt lambing yowes knowing that both they and their lambs would be killed in a matter of hours, whilst still wanting to do my best for them as individuals to prevent needless suffering.

And it’s not just a role for government. Whilst my team can implement legislation for recording of animal movements and standstills; prohibit the feeding of swill - which is believed to be the cause of the 2001 outbreak; and work with other government departments to protect our international borders; individuals and companies can make sure that their biosecurity is good enough so that even if the worst does happen and the disease gets through our defences, it does not have the chance to spread to other animals as quickly as it did in 2001.

The good news is that the same measures that do this for FMD will also help prevent spread of other cattle diseases such as Bovine Viral Diarrhoea or Johne’s.

So, let’s remember the outbreak of FMD in 2001, continue to learn from it, and focus on the good things that have been put in place as a result, to prevent such an awful situation happening again.

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