UK Insists Foot-And-Mouth's Move To Humans Isn't Serious

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - The British government and health officials are working hard to play down fears raised by the suspected transmission of the livestock foot-and-mouth disease to up to three human beings.

"Nightmare goes on as experts probe two new cases of human with foot-and-mouth," said the headline in one London tabloid Wednesday.

But the situation is a public relations nightmare rather than a health one. Officials scrambled to give assurances that the disease in humans is rare and not serious, and that one person is unlikely to be able to catch it from another.

It is also unrelated to a viral infection known as hand-foot-and-mouth disease, relatively common in young children, which usually begins in the throat, and also affects hands, feet and the diaper area.

The first known case of animal foot-and-mouth in humans in more than three decades seems to have been caused by an unpleasant stroke of bad luck for a slaughterman involved in the mass culling of infected livestock in the worst hit part of the country.

He was "moving a decomposing carcass of a cow and that carcass exploded and the fluid went into his mouth," Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman told reporters earlier.

The spokesman said he was being so graphic about what had happened only "to illustrate how highly unusual the circumstances were regarding this potentially contraction."

Tests are being carried out on two other people suspected of having caught the disease. The results are not expected for another several days.

Health specialists say the symptoms, which don't last for more than a few days, are akin to those of mild flu, with some sores in the mouth and on the hands.

The new twist in the outbreak comes at a time government has been hard pressed to get across its message that Britain is "open for business" and to woo back leery tourists ahead of the usually lucrative summer season.

Since the outbreak began in February, the tourism industry has lost more than $160 million a week in revenue.

The government sent a minister to Brussels Tuesday to answer questions about the outbreak, and try to clear up some of the misconceptions about the disease. A summit of UK tourism ministers is being held in Scotland Wednesday to discuss ways of tackling the crisis.

The Irish republic, which has had just one confirmed case of foot-and-mouth, has also been affected by a tourism slump, and has signed up some of its most famous citizens to spread the word that it is safe to visit.

On Monday night a statement was read during a concert in Los Angeles by the rock group U2. Lead singer Bono said Ireland was "a perfectly safe place for a vacation. All of us in the band live and work there."

Ireland last month cancelled St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Dublin because of the outbreak. The events have been rescheduled for May.


Among Britain's livestock, the number of new cases of foot-and-mouth is waning, Agriculture Department officials say. More than 1,450 farms are now affected.

As the mass slaughter of infected beasts and disposal of their carcasses continues, fears have been raised that huge, continuously burning pyres could be releasing cancer-causing chemicals into the air.

The government responded by announcing that people living close to pyres should avoid exposure to the smoke for long periods of time, as it could exacerbate asthma symptoms.

But it assured the public that people were not at risk from increased dioxin levels deposited from the burning carcasses.

Dioxins are poisonous compounds known to cause cancers, birth defects, skin diseases and nervous disorders.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher raised the possibility that using napalm - the highly flammable incendiary weapon employed during the Vietnam War - may be an effective way of destroying the piles of rotting animals.

One Labor lawmaker said napalm would do in an hour what a pyre could only achieve in three days.

Napalm has in the past been used for peaceful purposes like helping contain oil spills and destroying the carcasses of cattle infected with anthrax in the U.S.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow