Every evening, night after night, the television news in Europe carries the same scenes. Truckloads of sheep are tipped like rubble into gargantuan pits in Britain. Piles of bloated cows are burned on bonfires in France.
So far, European governments have been struggling to contain the continent's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease by killing and destroying all diseased animals and also healthy ones at risk.
But a groundswell of public revulsion at the mass slaughter, echoed by many animal-health professionals, is forcing officials to consider a long-rejected alternative: vaccination.
The result: a clash of arguments about science, ethics, exports, and efficiency that goes to the root of the way European farmers and consumers feel about their animals and their food.
The Dutch government has already launched an emergency vaccination program. Ten outbreaks of the highly infectious disease have overwhelmed the country's limited facilities for slaughter and disposal, so vets are vaccinating herds so as to set up "fire breaks" around infected areas.
The British government will make up its mind by the weekend, after stubbornly rejecting vaccination since the first case of foot-and-mouth was reported five weeks ago. Some 750,000 cattle, sheep, and pigs have been marked for slaughter, but the disease is still spreading. Some 750 cases had been reported by yesterday.
The government's chief scientist said last week that "the epidemic is out of control," and warned that as many as half of Britain's 55 million head of livestock might have to be culled.
In France, where two outbreaks have occurred, and in Ireland, where one farm is affected, programs of mass slaughter of animals at risk appear, so far, to have contained the disease.
The chief problem with vaccination is that current tests cannot distinguish between the antibodies found in an infected animal and those in a vaccinated one. That means that countries that routinely vaccinate lose their disease-free trading status, and their meat and livestock exports are either banned or severely restricted by other countries.
"Vaccination as a policy would be very much the last resort, because the cost and lost trade would be enormous," European Union Health commissioner David Byrne told the European Parliament earlier this month.
Foot-and-mouth is endemic in many parts of the world, including Africa, where cattle show few signs of infection and herdsmen take it for granted. Humans are not affected by the disease, and animals rarely die from it, but in the highly bred races found on European farms today, animals that catch the disease never produce more than 90 percent of the meat and milk they would otherwise have done.
"That 10 percent is a farmer's profit margin," points out Bernard Vallat, director-general of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health that sets international animal health regulations.
"Foot-and-mouth is in no way a public health problem and hardly an animal health problem," French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany told reporters earlier this week. "It is an economic problem. It is better to pay the price of slaughter [of healthy animals] than the price of lost exports; that is an extraordinarily rational economic calculation."
Such sums, however, do not convince everyone. "The question is whether it is ethical to kill thousands and thousands of animals purely on trade grounds," says Pierre Choraine, executive director of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe. "More and more professionals are questioning this approach."
"People are so concerned because it appears that the government wants to block vaccination so as not to lose export markets," says Emma Parkin, an official with the Soil Association in Britain, the body that oversees organic agriculture in that country. "It's repugnant to destroy healthy animals."
Science may hold out a solution. Researchers have developed new vaccines that can be distinguished from infection antibodies, but the diagnostic tests needed to spot the difference reliably "are still being validated, and they are probably two years away," says Dr. Vallat.
But the discovery of such vaccines, he points out, "has reignited the debate" about vaccination that ended 10 years ago, when the European Union discontinued vaccination throughout the Continent, so as to achieve the same optimum "foot-and-mouth free without vaccination" status that the United States, Uruguay, Canada, Australia, and some 50 other countries around the world enjoy.
Preventive vaccination on a wide scale has its drawbacks, experts point out. The vaccine does not take effect for four to seven days, it is not always 100 percent effective, and it wears out after nine months or so.
European officials are still dead set against mass vaccination; there are 300 million head of livestock in the 15 European Union member countries, posing a nightmarish logistical problem, not to mention the costs and export implications.
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has taken personal control of the battle against the disease in Britain, yesterday discussed with farmers' leaders the possibility of targeted vaccination of cattle in the two worst-hit regions of England so as to halt the spread of infection.
That would block exports from those regions for at least 12 months, but Mr. Blair has more than agricultural economics on his mind.
Britain's meat and food exports that would be at risk total $1.9 billion a year; losing that would be a dreadful blow to the British economy, and especially to cattle farmers still reeling from the effects of "mad cow" disease.
But Britain's annual revenue from tourism tops $11.5 billion every year, and the pictures of smoking pyres illustrating stories of the closed-off countryside are turning tourists off worldwide.
The British Tourist Authority reports that the number of visitors to Britain in March this year is down by 30 percent from March of last year.
Even for farmers, the economics of vaccination may begin to look attractive as foot-and-mouth continues to run rampant. "Emergency vaccination ... would at worst result in 12 months loss of the export trade," argues a report by Lawrence Woodward, an agricultural researcher in Britain
The government, he argues, should consult farmers, "to determine if they would accept this financial loss rather than the enormity of the proposed regional cull."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor