BANGKOK, Thailand – Veterinary and border control authorities in Asia should be alert for animals showing signs of infection by foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), following an unprecedented outbreak of the livestock-affecting sickness in South Korea, warned the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Since late November, South Korean authorities have imposed quarantines, initiated a vaccination campaign that is targeting 9 million pigs and 3 million head of cattle, and have culled 2.2 million livestock. The overall cost of this effort is estimated at around $1.6 billion.

"The current FMD dynamics in eastern Asia, as well as the magnitude of the outbreak in South Korea, are unlike anything that we've seen for at least a half century," said Juan Lubroth, FAO's chief veterinary officer. "This makes preparedness and monitoring extremely important right now.”

FMD must be addressed as a regional problem, said Subhash Morzaria, Asia region manager of FAO's Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Disease Operations. When responding to outbreaks, countries should adhere to accepted practices that adequately take animal welfare and environmental impacts into account, Lubroth said.

FMD has made an unparalleled spread through China in recent years and has entered eastern regions of Russia and Mongolia for the first time.

Lubroth said the overall situation in Asia is cause for concern, especially given the approaching Lunar New Year holiday, during which large numbers of people will be on the move in the region, many of them carrying meat products and some transporting animals.

FMD is a highly contagious disease affecting cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats, swine and other cloven-hoofed animals. It causes blisters on the nose, mouth and hooves and can kill young or weak animals. There are several types of FMD viruses. The type causing the outbreak in South Korea is Type O. The disease does not pose a direct health threat to humans.

Costs resulting from an FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 have been estimated at 13 billion Euro.

With FMD introductions on the increase, the question arises whether large-scale culling should remain the preferred method of dealing with FMD occurrences, or if vaccination should play a much more important role.

"Emergency vaccination with the aim to disrupt disease transmission and assist progressive elimination is increasingly applied, particularly during the peak of an epidemic, so as to buy time during culling operations,” Lubroth said. “Vaccination can also be applied to protect animals and keep them alive and productive. Today we have tests that can distinguish between animals that were infected and animals that were vaccinated, making it easier for countries to re-obtain certification of FMD-freedom after recovering from an outbreak.”