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Research / Discovery

Researchers help prepare for worst-case scenario of Foot-and-Mouth Disease

March 27, 2014
Kortny Rolston

When Foot-and-Mouth Disease infected cattle and sheep in the United Kingdom in 2001 and 2007, officials quarantined all livestock and slaughtered millions of animals to halt its spread. The tactics worked but not before the disease decimated the country's livestock industry.

Though Foot-and-Mouth Disease hasn’t been detected in the United States for 85 years, the UK devastation raised questions about how to stop an outbreak here.

The U.S. has far more cattle spread over a larger land mass, and livestock are frequently transported long distances across state lines, which could lead to the disease spreading quickly across the continent.

Researchers from Colorado State University, Warwick University in the United Kingdom, Linkoping University in Sweden and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have developed a sophisticated computer model that simulates cattle movements and disease spread to help understand where and how Foot-and-Mouth would move if it hits the U.S.

“The United States is so big and we had a very poor idea of where cattle were moving,” said Colleen Webb, associate professor of biology in CSU’s College of Natural Sciences who is leading the research team. “We built this model so we could understand that.”

Compiling data

One of the biggest challenges was the lack information on cattle transports.

Webb and her team solved this by compiling their own database using more than 20,000 Interstate Certificates of Veterinary Inspection filed in 2009. The certificates record where cattle originate and where they are destined when they are shipped across state lines.

“We believe it’s the first time this sort of data has been compiled about cattle movement throughout the United States,” said Dan Grear, who worked on the project as a post-doctoral researcher at CSU and is now a risk analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Worst-case scenario

The team has completed extensive simulations with the model, and the results highlight the country’s vulnerability to Foot-and-Mouth Disease.

In the worst case, according to the model, more than one-third of U.S. counties and more than 120,000 cattle farms could be infected if little were done to control the disease’s spread beyond isolating infected operations.

Given the disease’s potential consequences, the team also has evaluated a range of practical scenarios that could keep Foot-and-Mouth in check.

For example, researchers found that if the disease is detected soon after hitting the U.S., an efficient way to contain it is to quarantine animals within any county where it is found. If the disease is detected later, then it may be better to shut down movement within a state or region.

“Our works suggests that if Foot-and-Mouth Disease ever reaches the United States, local and national policymakers need to react quickly to prevent the worst-case scenario,” Webb said.

The team’s research, including a description of the cattle movement data and model and prediction of disease spread and control, were recently published in the journal PLoS One.

Project expanding

The initial project was funded primarily by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, with additional support from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services. The federal agencies have since provided money to expand the team’s research.

Students are now entering data from health certificates for 2010 and 2011, which is expected to give the team more information about cattle movements.

The team also plans to expand the model by adding swine to the mix, since pigs can also contract and spread Foot-and-Mouth Disease, as well as vaccination strategies.

What is Foot-and-Mouth Disease?

Foot-and-Mouth Disease is a highly contagious viral disease that infects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle or swine, although it may also affect wildlife. It causes a high fever and blisters to form inside the mouth and on hooves. The blisters are painful and can result in lameness, inability to chew food, and even death. The USDA lists the virus as a Foreign Animal Disease  - a disease not currently found in the United States.