Breaking news in the evening of 23rd June 2022 was of a possible outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Norfolk. This is a Notifiable Disease and so government vets investigated, finding signs of an infectious vesicular disease. Many of us still remember the massive outbreak in 2001 and the pyres of burning livestock as the government of the time tried to control the disease. Are we facing that again? Or is the outlook more hopeful?

What has happened?

Vets on a pig farm near Feltwell, Kings Lynn in Norfolk reported the existence of a suspected vesicular disease. This is a family of diseases that cause fluid-filled blisters or “vesicles” to form on the feet or mouth. The most infamous of these diseases is of course Foot and Mouth Disease; however, other possible causes include Vesicular Stomatitis and Swine Vesicular Disease.

How serious are these diseases?

It depends. Of the three most likely culprits, Vesicular Stomatitis is the least serious, and Foot and Mouth is the most severe. The control measures, however, are fairly similar because the diseases appear very similar; however, in general, the government’s contingency plan suggests that widespread culling would only be likely to be needed in the case of Foot and Mouth. As of Friday evening, fortunately, Foot and Mouth Disease has been ruled out – so it seems likely that we are dealing with one of the other vesicular diseases of pigs.

Vesicular Stomatitis (VS)

Vesicular stomatitis affects pigs, but it can also affect cattle, horses and donkeys (unusually, because most vesicular diseases only affect cloven hoofed animals) and, more rarely, sheep and goats (who tend to be resistant to it). The disease is however relatively mild in most cases, and doesn’t spread easily – biting flies and direct contact with other animals are the main routes of transmission. It has never before been recorded in the UK, though, and given modern biosecurity regulations it seems fairly unlikely that VS is the cause.

Swine Vesicular Disease (SVD)

SVD is generally accepted to be on the Notifiable List primarily because it is identical in appearance to Foot and Mouth. As its name suggests, it only affects pigs, but is much, much more easily spread than VS, as infected meat, body fluids, and indirect transfer of viruses on vehicles and clothing are possible routes of infection as well as direct contact. The last outbreak in Great Britain was in 1982, so it’s unclear how the virus could have entered the country, but given the routes of infection, a breach in biosecurity is more likely than for VS.

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)

FMD affects all cloven hoofed animals (mainly pigs, cattle, sheep), and is extremely contagious as infected animals shed vast quantities of the virus. The virus can spread by the same routes as SVD, including on the feet of birds, on vehicles and people, and in mud; but there is also documented evidence of airborne spread on the wind in some cases. It is a more severe disease, although fatalities are fairly uncommon, fairly long-term ill health is a common result of infection. The last cases in the UK were in 2007 due to a laboratory accident; but the major outbreak in 2001, which led to the slaughter of 6.5 million animals, was on everyone’s mind until the updated results came in!

Which disease is it?

Well, the great news is that late on the evening of Friday 24th June, the UK’s chief veterinary officer was able to confirm that the infection was not Foot and Mouth Disease. At the moment, the suspicion is of Swine Vesicular Disease: this is still a notifiable disease but hopefully less serious than a new FMD outbreak would be.

What should I do?

If you live within the Control Zone there are complete movement restrictions: you cannot move any susceptible animals (pigs of any breed or species) in or out of the zone. You should also make sure that all pigs are secured on the premises, and we would strongly advise stepping up your biosecurity: footbaths using an SVD approved disinfectant (see the official list and concentrations here) and minimal movement on and off the premises.

Outside the Control Zone, again, we would strongly recommend stepping up your biosecurity.

What about pets?

Pet pigs must abide by the restrictions in the same way as their farmed cousins. No movement, and again, really good biosecurity to protect them.

Will it be like 2001 all over again?

It’s very unlikely: SVD (if that’s what it is) is a less serious disease and the control measures are usually more focussed on avoiding spread than culling infected animals. In addition, the vets picked this up really early, so hopefully, whatever it is, can be contained. In addition, we have learned a lot about disease control in the last 20 years, and generally, farm biosecurity is much, much better.

This isn’t the time to panic: right the situation seems to be under control.

But do keep checking in with DEFRA for any updates.

Further reading:

This article was last updated at 2215 on 24/06/2022