Foot-and-mouth 10 years on: Was it right not to vaccinate?

TO vaccinate or not to vaccinate became one of the most divisive debates ever to take place within the farming industry. On the face of it, it was about life or death, but the reality was much more complex.

The question of vaccination was raised at the start of the outbreak but the Government initially deemed it impractical. But as the number of outbreaks grew towards 50 a day during March, the clamour for vaccination grew.

Prime Minister Tony Blair came under intense pressure from a powerful pro-vaccination lobby, led by the Prince of Wales, who met Ministers face-to-face to make his case, and Soil Association heavyweights Patrick Holden and Peter Melchett.

By the end of March, Chief Government Scientist Prof David King’s FMD Science Group unanimously backed a plan to vaccinate housed cattle in Cumbria ahead of spring grazing.

A recommendation for ‘emergency vaccination’ was made on March 27, EU permission was secured and 156 vaccination teams were put on three-day standby.

Industry approval

All that was needed was industry approval. It never came. The plan was vigorously opposed by most farm leaders, led by NFU president Ben Gill, and MAFF Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore. They had the support of Agriculture Minister Nick Brown.

Sir Ben Gill claims he finally persuaded Mr Blair to drop plans for vaccination during a ‘one-to-one’ meeting at Chequers on April 17, as he persuaded Mr Blair that vaccinated animals would probably have to be killed at a later date, the policy adopted in Holland.

“The problem with vaccination is that you have no means of identifying the animals that have become infectious and are emitting vast quantities of virus but never show symptoms because they are vaccinated,” says Sir Ben.

There were also indications from Tesco it ‘would not sell products our customers regard as inferior’, and Nestle also had concerns about taking vaccinated milk from Cumbria.

Mr Brown also highlights the logistical difficulties of mass vaccination and the ‘huge trade implications’ for a food industry that exported about £12 billion of food a year.

Right decision

Within a few days of the meetings, the policy was dropped, but Mr Brown is adamant the right decision was made.

“I was right to trust Ben Gill, representing the working farmers, supermarket chiefs and the chief vet, people whose advice I respected,” he says.

But the Soil Association remains adamant the Government got it wrong. Phil Stocker, the organic body’s director of farmer and grower relations, said the association believed the main barrier to vaccination was the UK’s export status.

“We took the view that an extended trade ban might have helped us move towards a more sustainable, local and UK-based meat trade,” he says.

He says tests were available to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals and that a vaccinate—to—live policy would have been possible and the association would have supported such a plan.

But Sir Ben remains defiant. “It was a horrible decision to make but if we had vaccinated we would not have controlled the disease and far more animals would have been slaughtered,” he says.

Foot-and-mouth facts: figures from the outbreak

  • The epidemic lasted 221 days
  • It struck in 44 British counties
  • Total cost was £3bn, of which £1.3bn went to farmers as compensation
  • A total of 10,157 premises were affected by the disease
  • A total of 6.45 million animals were slaughtered in the UK during foot and mouth, but many believe the actual figure to be over 10m.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Ben Gill's defiance is not justified by the facts of vaccination.

    While it is true that FMD-vaccinated animals can -if virus is present at the time or just before vaccine is given - become infected by the virus, vaccination not only prevents severe disease in the animal but prevents or at the least greatly reduces onward transmission (Cox and others 1999).

    So even were a vaccinated animal to become infected it will shed little or no virus.

    It is extremely unlikely to infect even a non-vaccinated animal kept in close contact (Barnett and Carabin 2002)

    In real life as opposed to laboratory conditions, any animal that does encounter infection before full immunity from the vaccine develops will only be in contact with other vaccinated animals in its group (farm) and the virus will have nowhere to go. No nearby farm will be at risk from these, now protected, animals.

    Compare this to the enormous amount of virus produced on an infected, non-vaccinated farm. Other farms are highly likely to be infected by indirect contact and/or (depending on the strain) by aerosol spread.

    No one claims that vaccine is ever 100% effective but because of herd immunity, only 80% of cattle or 72% of sheep (Brownlie 2001) would need to be successfully vaccinated to stop transmission within and from that herd.

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  • I'm not sure we should be too quick to rush to judgement. It's a very complex subject.

    "The international rules governing FMD free status have changed since 2001 and
    the use of emergency vaccination no longer carries the same trade “penalty” as

    Exit strategy:

    34. As soon as a FMD outbreak is confirmed, a country loses its international
    trading status of “free from oot-and-mouth disease without vaccination”. How quickly a country regains its FMD free status depends partly upon how long it takes to eradicate the disease and partly on the disease control strategies used. The international rules governing FMD free status have changed since 2001 and
    the use of emergency vaccination no longer carries the same trade “penalty” as

    Export of live animals post vaccination:

    48. Once vaccinated, animals cannot be exported, even after FMD free status is

    The role of vaccination in a future outbreak of FMD

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  • Charles Henry rightly says, "The international rules governing FMD free status have changed since 2001.

    It is true that the extra six month wait to resume export has now been reduced to three. But could someone please explain to me why there has to be a penalty at all?

    Member States choosing to protect their national herds and flocks with modern disease control methods are surely acting in the best interests of their neighbours as well as their own farmers and livestock.

    My ten year study of the FMD issues, including overwhelming evidence that so-called vaccinated "carriers" do not spread disease, convinces me that there are no valid scientific or veterinary reasons for making vaccination the harder option.

    Following an outbreak, the export of vaccinated animals is far safer than the export of animals that may be silent carriers because not vaccinated.

    Have I missed something? Can anyone explain why the EU rule persists if not as a means of protectionism?

    Caroline Spelman is to be congratulated on her efforts at EU level to ensure that the battery cage ban is not delayed. Can DEFRA not use its influence on the now outdated FMD restrictions on vaccination - especially when one considers the EU stance on Bluetongue vaccination.

    When will the farming unions and government unite and get the illogical, destructive EU rules changed?

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  • Your answer was just what I nedeed. It's made my day!

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