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Health Insight May 2001: Foot and mouth: human risks?

  Fears that the foot and mouth epidemic might lead to disease in humans have so far proved groundless. At least six possible cases are understood to have been investigated by the Public Health Laboratory Service but all have been found to be negative. The cases include one which received a high profile in the media a Cumbrian farm-worker who had come in contact with many decomposing carcasses of slaughtered animals, one of which exploded into his face. He subsequently developed blisters on his tongue and numbness in his feet. Tests for foot and mouth nevertheless proved negative.

It is, however, thought that one of the factors putting off tourists, particularly from the USA, from coming to Britain this summer is a fear that they might themselves become infected with foot and mouth. There is also apparently confusion in the minds of many potential tourists between foot and mouth and BSE/CJD.

Health risks could, nevertheless, be faced by those who live near the pyres on which slaughtered animals are being burned. There have been reports of bitumen and red diesel being used on some pyres, which would lead to toxins in the smoke. However, initial monitoring tests have found virtually no increase in dioxin levels in areas near pyres. Burial of carcasses could also cause hazards; in County Durham 900 animals that had been buried were dug up again when the Environmental Agency warned that polluted material could find its way into water supplies.

The DoH has also warned that children should not play on agricultural land and that people should keep away from carcasses. Those with respiratory problems living near pyres should keep their inhalers with them.

Sources: BBC Online, BMJ 14 April, Guardian 28 April, Health Service Journal 5 April

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