Until Dutch veterinarians resorted to vaccination for foot-and-mouth disease last week, none of Europe's 300 million livestock animals had been immunized for a decade.
The European Union, which eradicated foot-and-mouth in the late 1980s, was declared free of the disease in 1990. This carried significant trade advantages for the livestock export industry. The United States, for example, has banned imports of susceptible cloven-hoofed livestock--and their meat products--from positive-testing or vaccinating countries since 1930.
Europe had a second incentive to stop immunizing against foot-and-mouth in 1991: It saved the EU, by its own estimate, more than $790 million.
Fred Brown, a virologist at the Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, made his name with foot-and-mouth research. In 1981, while working in his native Britain, he traced an outbreak to an improperly inactivated vaccine. Even so, when Europe stopped vaccinating in 1991, he was aghast.
"It's quite clear that if you stop vaccinating, you're vulnerable," he says.
Critics of vaccination, including the veterinarians advising British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, object that it isn't the simple panacea the media have sometimes made it out to be during the current crisis. Objections to vaccination include expense, shortages, delays before immunity kicks in and the limited protection that any one shot confers in the face of seven strains of the virus with dozens of subtypes.
But the leading objection--that antibodies produced by vaccinations make testing for live disease impossible--is no longer valid, Brown argues. Since a 1997 outbreak, sensitive tests have become available that quickly and reliably distinguish between the two.
Although he acknowledges that no single vaccine is foolproof, he stresses that technology has outstripped the old "stomping out"--slaughter--and "ring vaccination" assaults and that inoculation should now be part of basic livestock husbandry.
"What did you do with polio? You vaccinated the whole world," he says. "What's the use of being able to prevent a disease if you don't do it?"
As Europe throws everything it has at the disease, concern is growing in California as to its own line of defense for the estimated 6 million cattle in the state. The USDA has announced that were an outbreak to happen here, it would use much the same strategy employed by the British.
But Bennie Osburn, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, says he wonders if California could cope. Britain has more vets in the cattle and livestock field, he says.
Moreover, modeling at UC Davis done in 1998 showed that even an outbreak limited to Tulare County in the Central Valley could cost as much as $1.5 billion. And that is only if, Science magazine pointed out this month, the outbreak were contained to one county.
Virologist Brown warns that leaving concentrated cattle populations unvaccinated in the midst of an epidemic is foolhardy.
"Any country is vulnerable to foot-and-mouth," he says. "Any country. The U.S. is just waiting for it. Waiting."