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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Op Ed | VegSource Interactive, Inc.

UK Scientists -- Dishonest Mouth Disease?
by Jeff Nelson

April 29, 2001 -- "Humans' animal virus tests negative," reads the headline on CNN's website. The story tells of UK researchers' assurances that suspected human foot-and-mouth disease cases tested to date show no foot-and-mouth in people.

It seems quite odd, however, that people exposed to sick cattle are coming down with a disease very much like foot-and-mouth -- "but rest assured, it's not foot-and-mouth," the experts assert. The point researchers would seem to want to drive home is this: people can't catch this terrible disease, so relax and bring your tourist dollars to England.

The question becomes: what did these people catch from these sick cows, if it isn't foot-and-mouth? Note how the caseload of suspected foot-and-mouth is soaring in recent days. Virtually overnight it has gone to 13 +2 or 15 total cases, whereas only last Thursday is was about 6.

How common are mouth blisters in slaughter workers normally?

Of course, nothing whatsoever has been disclosed by UK researchers about the diagnostic method used to determine whether these people actually have foot-and-mouth. It would take only a few hours, not several days -- as researchers are currently taking -- to see if victims are seropositive.

"Perhaps they are trying to amplify live virus or viral DNA by PCR from them," says molecular biologist, Tom Pringle, "and if it fails, call it negative."

Pringle says it's possible UK researchers have made the diagnositc criteria so stringent and unrealistic that "absence of evidence became evidence of absence."

"In other words," says Pringle, "requiring that live foot-and-mouth virus be recoverable from respiratory tract is an incredibly stringent criterion, whereas a simple verification that the affected individuals are seropositive [have made antibodies to the virus, implying exposure to it] would normally be quite acceptable -- if tourism were not at risk."


The unanswered question in the media reports would seem to be: if these people are not suffering from foot-and-mouth -- what was the diagnosis? After all, they did have the exposure and the symptoms. What else fits "tongue covered in sores and blisters" in a person occupationally exposed to foot and mouth disease?

"'No diagnosis' is not acceptable under these circumstances," says Pringle. "They have to come up with something specific that fits better than foot-and-mouth."

Says Paul Stamper, 33, who has gained worldwide recognition for being suspected of being the first human victim of Britain's recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak: “I keep hoping that it will just go away. If it doesn't, everything I have worked for will be worthless. All we can do is wait and hope.”

Stamper believes he caught the disease when he was working at a farm near Wigton, England, earlier this month, helping transport dead cattle to a funeral pyre.

Stamper said he was standing behind a tractor when a cow on the pile of corpses exploded, covering him in vapor and fluid. Stamper felt moisture in his mouth.

“It tasted like it smelled,” he told the London Daily Mail. “I spit it out as quickly as I could, but I didn't think it was dangerous.”

Stamper said he wasn't wearing a mask because he had not been told there were any health risks. Stamper admitted that there were masks available, but he thought the masks were there only to protect workers from the smell.

He was so unconcerned about the incident that he didn't mention it to his family until two weeks later when he developed flu-like symptoms, which eventually progressed to the point he couldn't eat.

“I called the doctor, but he just told me that humans could not get foot-and-mouth,” he said. “It was only the following morning when I turned up at the hospital and showed them my tongue [covered in sores and blisters] that they decided to do the first tests.

“By this time my throat was so sore I could barely swallow a cup of tea,” Stamper said. “My feet were stone cold and it was like someone had put an elastic band around my ankles. I couldn't feel anything properly below the knees.”

Stamper is now concerned that because of his infection, he may never be able to work on farms again. His second job, running a taxi business, may also be facing ruin because many of his customers live in the affected area and would not want to be near him, he said.

On a larger scale, positive confirmation of the disease could also spell death for the tourist area in many rural British areas. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his agriculture ministers have made repeated claims that the countryside is safe for travel and tourists; however, Stamper may end up being "Exhibit A", proof that the disease can jump from animals to humans.

Stamper's lawyer, Jonathan Hardiker, told the London Daily Mail that if Stamper is confirmed to have foot-and-mouth disease, he would consider suing the Agriculture Ministry for failing to provide adequate safety precautions.

Despite media reports that people can't catch foot-and-mouth from cattle, there is overwhelming evidence in the medical literature that confirms humans do catch the disease (e.g., two cases in the UK reported in medical journals).

Rest assured, however, that the UK has no intention of letting Stamper be diagnosed with foot-and-mouth. Even though his symptoms are identical to foot-and-mouth in cattle, and even though he was exposed directly to the disease, it will come as no surprise to observers of the recent UK animal epidemics that Stamper will be found to have "some other disease not related to animal farming." Perhaps it will be the "please keep the tourists coming" disease instead.




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