Mad Cows and Sick Sheep: Why the European Epidemic Shouldn't Change Your Travel Plans

From the WebMD Archives

March 23, 2001 -- Your dream trip to Europe is just around the corner. You've got your passport, your plane tickets -- and, now, your fears. Recent outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease are forcing farmers in the U.K. and elsewhere to slaughter thousands upon thousands of animals, and American travelers to affected countries face the specter of rigorous questioning and disinfecting upon their return.

So, should these events affect your travel plans -- and, if so, how much?

First, you should know that although people can carry foot-and-mouth disease and transmit this highly contagious disease to certain animals, humans are generally immune from the condition. Second, foot-and-mouth disease is a completely separate entity from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as "mad cow" disease.

"The danger from foot-and-mouth disease is its impact on agriculture, to meat and dairy industries, because the illness spreads very easily," says Richard A. Levinson, MD, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association.

"Foot-and-mouth disease, also known as hoof-and-mouth disease, affects animals with cloven or split hooves," D. L. Step, DVM, tells WebMD. "This includes cattle, sheep, goats, and swine. In addition, certain wild animals such as deer can be infected. Although single-hoofed animals such as horses are not typically susceptible, they can be carriers."

The organisms that spread foot-and-mouth diseases are picornaviruses. These viruses are typically airborne, although they can also spread through ingestion, says Step, assistant professor of food animal medicine and surgery at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla.

The disease typically causes ulcers to form in the mouth and in the tissue between the hoof and the foot. In young animals such as calves or lambs, the disease can cause inflammation of the heart. Although animals can survive the illness, they are often lame afterward and may have lost considerable weight. Dairy animals' milk production is severely reduced after surviving foot-and-mouth disease.

Because these viruses can spread over a radius of up to 40 miles, experts say that slaughtering herds in affected areas, as is currently happening in the U.K. is the most prudent way to contain the illness. Approximately 1 million livestock animals in that country have been targeted for slaughter. Cases of foot-and-mouth disease have also been reported in Argentina.

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BSE, or "mad-cow disease," is thought to be transmitted by a protein fragment known as a prion. As with other spongiform encephalopathies, BSE causes the affected animal's brain to develop holes -- therefore becoming spongelike in appearance; the animal eventually dies. A human variant, human spongiform encephalopathy, causes the degenerative dementia known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Humans may also be susceptible to BSE, but that isn't yet clear.

Prions are resistant to conventional sterilization techniques. The infection may be spread from prions present in the affected animal's central nervous system, such as the spinal cord and brain.

Techniques for preventing the spread of both illnesses to the U.S. are similar, says John Maas, DVM.

"Live animals from the United Kingdom and from the European Union are banned, as are raw meat products from affected areas," says Maas, a veterinarian at the University of California-Davis.

To prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has several travel restrictions posted on its web site. People traveling in affected countries must:

  • Avoid farms and barns, as well as stockyards, animal laboratories, packing houses, zoos, fairs, or other animal facilities for five days before coming to the U.S.
  • All clothing and outerwear should be laundered or dry-cleaned, and all dirt and soil should be removed from shoes, as well as soiled luggage and personal items, with a bleach-dampened cloth.
  • Contact with livestock or wildlife should be avoided for five days after entering the U.S., particularly for people traveling from farms in infected locales to visit or work on farms in the U.S. Hosts for such travelers should provide them with a clean set of clothing, to be worn after the visitor showers and shampoos thoroughly. The traveling clothes should be laundered or dry-cleaned immediately.

Should these concerns cause you to forgo your trip to the U.K. or other destinations?

"Absolutely not," says Mark Blackwell, DVM, a veterinarian in the U.K. and director of marketing and international sales for Antec International, which manufactures a disinfectant for foot-and-mouth disease.

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"The government is taking sensible precautions to eradicate the disease," he tells WebMD. "The questions in U.S. customs are really not unusual. I am often asked if I've been on a farm when I come to the U.S."

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