Foot-and-mouth disease

It's time now for this week's edition of Talking Point, and today Nick Carey takes a look at the measures the Czechs are taking to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease to the Czech Republic...

Photo: Radio Prague
Almost as soon as the first outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease were announced in Great Britain, the Czech State Veterinary Authority introduced strict measures to limit the possibility of an outbreak in the Czech Republic. In this edition of Talking Point, we'll take a look at these measures, public and professional reactions to them, their effectiveness and the danger of foot-and-mouth hitting Czech farmers...

Foot-and-mouth disease is highly infectious, more so than most other diseases that affect either animals or people. While it rarely causes lasting harm to humans, people can carry it, as can most animals and birds. But its ability to travel is not just limited to living carriers. In the right weather conditions, foot-and-mouth disease can travel up to one hundred and forty miles on the wind. Add to this modern farming methods, and it is not too surprising that it has spread rapidly through Britain, and has hit France and, in the past few days, Ireland and Holland.

The measures introduced by the Czech State Veterinary Authority include a ban on the import of meat products from EU countries, and all people entering the Czech Republic from the European Union have to have their shoes disinfected. All meat or dairy products are confiscated and destroyed. Those arriving by car at the border also have to drive across disinfecting mats. Josef Holevksy, the director of the State Veterinary Authority, says the measures were taken early on to provide the best possible protection against the spread of foot-and-mouth: The reaction of the Czech media has been mixed, with allegations that the measures are either too extreme, with others saying that they are pointless, as the disease can be spread by birds or animals, rendering disinfecting measures against humans completely ineffective. But Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hugo Roldan says the measures are necessary to prevent the disease spreading to the Czech Republic: One daily paper recently described the measures as a joke, saying that by merely disinfecting shoes and car tyres, the state could not possibly prevent the spread of the disease: The media in the Czech Republic have featured regular articles and commentaries over the past few weeks on long lines of cars at border crossings, with people complaining over delays due to the government's measures against the disease, with complaints that having to wait for hours to be disinfected was unacceptable. I visited one of the main crossings on the border with Germany and was surprised to find no lines of cars or angry tourists. According to this border guard, the initial shock of the measures has worn off:

"People realise now what this is all about - that there's a very real threat that the disease could now spread from France or the Netherlands. In the beginning, some people complained about having to wait for hours, but the measures are essential and people understand that now. Everything's written down here in four languages, they can read why the measures are being taken, and now we're getting very few complaints to be honest."

These people crossing from Germany to the Czech Republic certainly seemed to agree: "I think it's fair enough. They've got to do something. Whether it'll work is another matter, but at least they're doing something. You've got to do something, haven't you?" "In Italy we are very worried about this disease and that it may cross our borders too, so I think it's a very sensible thing to do."

Agriculture Minister spokesman Hugo Roldan says that Czech farmers, the ones who stand to lose the most from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth, have also been very understanding towards the measures: Jan Zahorka, the secretary of the Czech Agrarian Chamber, an independent organisation that represents Czech farmers, says farmers are, for the most part, in full agreement with the measures:

"We think that these are essential measures taken to protect our livestock and we support them. There are farmers who think that the measures are a little excessive, for instance, it is a laborious process to get official permission to move livestock, but at this point the measures are absolutely necessary and we understand that."

Pig and cow farmer Josef Kubis backs this view, saying that it is in the farmers' own interests to adhere to the government measures:

"These measures are of course necessary. I think all Czech farmers understand that and we are trying to make sure that all of the government measures against foot-and-mouth are upheld. We haven't had an outbreak since 1975 and it's in our own best interests to make sure it doesn't happen now."

Now that foot-and-mouth disease has hit mainland Europe, the risk that it could spread to the Czech Republic has greatly increased. According to pig farmer Frantisek Hrabe, if it reaches Germany, it's almost a foregone conclusion that it will affect the Czech Republic:

"Now that foot-and-mouth has crossed to the mainland, the risk of it spreading is massive. We are really scared that it could get to Germany, because if it does, it's as good as here. It could merely be a matter of days before it spread to the Czech Republic."

Agriculture Ministry spokesman Hugo Roldan says that the risk is indeed great, but he believes past Czech experiences of foot-and-mouth could help save much of the livestock: Even if many of the country's pigs, sheep and cattle could be saved in the event of an outbreak, Hugo Roldan admits the Czech agricultural sector would still be hard hit: Although the number of confirmed cases is gradually rising in Holland, there has so far only been one confirmed outbreak in France. Josef Holejsovsky of the Czech State Veterinary Authority believes that the key to preventing a mass outbreak of the disease is to act fast like the French authorities, and find the source of the outbreak as soon as possible: The controversy in the Czech media over whether enough effective measures against the possible spread of foot-and-mouth disease have been taken seems likely to continue. But according to Josef Holejsovsky, the authorities are as prepared as they can be to fight it: