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Foot-and-mouth a hammer blow for Miyazaki farms

by Minoru Matsutani and Mizuho Aoki

After the first case of foot-and-mouth disease was detected April 20 in Tsuno, Miyazaki Prefecture, the outbreak has spread quickly, making headlines in major papers and TV news programs and battering the prefecture’s economy.

Amid the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Japan’s history, Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru declared a state of emergency Tuesday, asking people living in the affected and surrounding areas to refrain from going out unless absolutely necessary.

Following are questions and answers related to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Miyazaki Prefecture:

Where did the outbreak originate?

The agriculture ministry is checking that now. It suspects the virus came from Hong Kong or South Korea, as suggested by DNA analysis, a ministry official in the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Countermeasures Office said.

How much livestock has been infected?

The number of infected animals and those suspected of being infected was estimated Wednesday at 118,164 — 9,185 cows, 108,975 pigs and four goats, according to a Miyazaki prefectural official.

What kind of preventive measures have been taken to contain the disease virus?

As of Wednesday, 65,000 farm animals had been slaughtered and the rest of the infected and potentially infected livestock will have to be killed as soon as possible, said Hiroaki Ogura of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Countermeasures Office at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

The prefecture has placed restrictions on the movement of livestock within 10 km of affected farms and set up sterilization sites in about 50 locations in the prefecture, the Miyazaki official said.

Is vaccine useful in containing the virus?

It is effective in restraining the virus and slowing down the rate it leaves the infected body, the prefectural official said. However, by vaccinating those animals that have not been infected, it will result in the slaughter of more animals because after vaccination there is no way to distinguish between healthy and infected animals, the official said.

What are the symptoms?

Infected animals get blisters around their mouth and on their legs. They lose their appetite and thus meat and milk quality worsens. The mortality rate is less than 10 percent, according to the agriculture ministry.

Can it be transmitted to humans?

According to the prefectural officials, there have been no confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease transmitted to humans. However, humans may spread the disease by carrying virus on their cloths, shoes or body, the official added.

Is it safe to eat infected meat?

Eating the meat does not harm humans. However, sick animals can’t be moved or sold as stipulated in the Act on Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control, Naoko Kokuho of the Animal Health Division at the agriculture ministry said.

How will this affect the pork and beef supply?

There will be some impact, especially for high-quality beef.

Miyazaki had 314,600 cows as of Feb. 1, accounting for 7.1 percent of the Japanese herd, and 914,500 pigs, 9.2 percent of the national total, Kokuho said.

Miyazaki also plays a significant role in supplying high-quality “wagyu” beef because farmers in Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture, and other places buy calves from Miyazaki to breed them. Matsuzaka beef is considered the highest quality beef in Japan.

According to statistics compiled by the National Livestock Breeding Center, 84,059 “kuroge” (black hair) wagyu were born in Miyazaki in the year that ended in March 2009, accounting for 14.8 percent of that type of cow born in Japan. Kuroge wagyu is the most tender of all beef and thus the most popular in Japan.

How much economic damage is Miyazaki Prefecture facing?

Miyazaki officials say they have no idea. A pig typically sells for about ¥35,000 and a cow for ¥500,000 to ¥1 million, Tsuyoshi Wada of the ministry’s Livestock Production and Feed Division said.

This outbreak is far worse than the last time Japan was hit by foot-and-mouth a decade ago. Why?

The main reason is the difference in the density of pig farms in the affected areas, the Miyazaki official said.

In 2000, 35 cows in the city of Miyazaki and the town of Takaoka, which is now part of the prefectural capital, were slaughtered before the prefecture declared itself free of the disease, and no pig came was infected, the official said.

What have outbreaks been like in other countries?

According to Kazuo Ito of the Animal Health Division at the agriculture ministry, Britain had to slaughter 4 million animals in February 2001, including 600,000 cows, 3.3 million sheep and 140,000 pigs, to contain the disease.

An additional 2 million animals had to be killed because farmers had to put them in small areas after segregating them from infected areas, a condition that is unhealthy and may cause outbreaks of other diseases, Ito said.

In Taiwan in 1997, 3.85 million pigs had to be killed to contain the disease, he added.