The risk of Foot and Mouth Disease transmission posed by public access to the countryside during an outbreak

Frontiers in Veterinary Science

During the 2001 UK FMD outbreak, local authorities restricted rural access to try to prevent further disease spread by people and animals, which had major socio-economic consequences for rural communities. This study describes the results of qualitative veterinary risk assessments to assess the likelihood of different recreational activities causing new outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, as part of contingency planning for future outbreaks.

For most activities, the likelihood of causing new outbreaks of foot and mouth disease is considered to vary from very low to medium depending on the control zone (which is based on distance to the nearest infected premises), assuming compliance with specified mitigation strategies. The likelihood of new outbreaks associated with hunting, shooting, stalking, and equestrian activities is considered to be greater. There are areas of significant uncertainty associated with data paucity, particularly regarding the likelihood of transmission via fomites.

This study provides scientific evidence to underpin refinement of rural access management plans and inform decision-making in future disease outbreaks.

Highly contagious diseases of livestock have the potential for significant impact, not only on the agricultural industry but also the wider economy and on society. Foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) is both easily transmissible and able to persist in the environment (1, 2), meaning that control strategies must aim to prevent transmission via fomites as well as direct contact. Therefore, foot and mouth disease (FMD) has the potential for substantial societal impact; control strategies rely not only on mandatory slaughter of infected and in-contact animals and restrictions on movement and trade of susceptible livestock species (3, 4), but may also require restrictions on the activities of non-susceptible animals and people, who may transmit the virus mechanically.

During the 2001 UK foot and mouth disease outbreak, UK local authorities took a precautionary approach to disease control and used blanket bans to close all footpaths, even in uninfected areas, to try to prevent further disease spread by people and animals. These measures had major socio-economic consequences for rural communities (5). The tourism sector suffered the greatest financial impact and is estimated to have lost around £3bn due to the outbreak, due in large part to the perception that “the countryside was closed” (6, 7). Post-outbreak reports highlighted the need for more research on the likely efficacy of biosecurity measures such as footpath closures, and more transparent risk-based decision making, particularly regarding rural access (5, 7).

Although the exceptional scale of the 2001 outbreak in UK undoubtedly exacerbated the issues of rural access (8, 9), the role of people accessing to the countryside in contributing to onward transmission of FMD remains an important question that has not been addressed in Scotland or in other countries that are FMD-free. In light of this, a suite of veterinary risk assessments (VRAs) were developed to consider the risk of disease spread associated with recreational access to the countryside. Here, we describe the risk assessments and conclusions as well as highlighting key assumptions and knowledge gaps.

Lisa Boden

Prof. Lisa Boden

Professor of Population Medicine and Veterinary Public Health Policy,

Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security

Harriet 20240203 151921 EDIT Colourized

Dr Harriet Auty

Veterinary Epidemiologist,

School of Biodiversity, One Health and Veterinary Medicine, University of Glasgow