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Surinder Sud: The foot-and-mouth scourge

India is struggling to eradicate this highly contagious virus

Surinder Sud 

After the eradication of dreaded livestock ailments like rinderpest and contagious bovine pleura-pneumonia, the focus now is on stamping out another equally perilous malaise called foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The World Animal Health Organisation has identified this disease as the most important constraint on international trade in animal products.

Memories of Britain’s economic deprivation caused by the FMD outbreak in 2001 are still fresh. It took a toll on over 10 million farm animals and controlling the virus cost around $4 billion. The country faced a six-month ban on the export of all livestock products and its tourism industry was completely paralysed. The food and agriculture sector suffered direct and indirect losses of around $5 billion.

India’s livestock sector that has now emerged as the largest contributor to the country’s agricultural gross domestic product, or GDP, is highly vulnerable to this disease, which has been endemic in most parts for over 100 years. Conservative estimates put annual losses owing to FMD at over Rs 20,000 crore. Besides lowering the production of milk and other animal products, FMD causes indirect losses by debilitating draught animals, depriving farmers of vital draught power needed for farm operations and transportation.

FMD is a highly-contagious viral disease that affects almost all cloven-hoofed animals (those with hoofs split into two), including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, camels and wild animals like antelopes, neelgai (blue bull) and so on. Animals afflicted with this disease develop blisters in the mouth cavity as well as at the parting of the hoofs together with high fever. Pregnant cows may abort as a result of this infection, while young calves may die if not treated in time. Many animals become permanently lame, turning unfit for farm work. The milk of affected animals, besides being reduced in quantity, is rendered unusable.

India has a FMD-susceptible animal population of around 600 million, including around 200 million cattle, 105 million buffaloes, over 140 million goats, nearly 732 million sheep and over 11 million swine, besides a large number of mithun, yak, camels and so on. Moreover, widespread distribution and unrestricted movement of animals make the task of eliminating FMD all the more difficult. Yet, it is creditable for the country’s FMD eradication programme to have brought this disease under control in northern states, notably Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. And it is inching closer to doing so in the southern peninsula comprising Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry.

The animal husbandry wing of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) feels that by 2018, northern states can hope to be free of this malaise and the southern peninsula will move a step closer to achieving that status. “It is hoped that by 2025, this disease will be under control in most part of the country,” ICAR animal scientists maintain.

However, as of today, outbreaks of FMD are still reported from some parts, notably the north-east, though the number of cases is steadily declining. The main worry is about its persistence in north-eastern states like Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh that share borders with countries like China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan from where the infection can come owing to trans-boundary animal movement.

Some countries, including the UK and the US, have managed to wipe out FMD by slaughtering all the affected and at-risk animal populations. India cannot do so given the critical reliance of the landless and small farmers on livestock for subsistence and the social bar on killing cattle in several states. It, therefore, has to rely on regular vaccination of animals to keep the infection under check, even as this method involves huge costs and a massive effort. A countrywide network of 15 field units and eight regional centres has been created by ICAR to undertake surveillance and control of FMD.

Besides, the government is helping state animal husbandry departments to control FMD. The much-needed research and vaccination development support is being provided by ICAR’s laboratory at Mukteshwar near Nainital. This strategy is paying off and can be emulated elsewhere in South Asia as well to get rid of this scourge.  

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First Published: Tue, February 07 2012. 00:01 IST