Articles

WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE Foot-and-Mouth EPIDEMIC?

When the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was suddenly made public in February, Maclean's assigned two of its editors to get at the facts behind what threatens to be a major economic calamity. Fred Bodsworth flew to Regina for an on-the-spot report. Blair Fraser, in Ottawa, dug into the political implications of the outbreak. Their joint findings are presented on the following pages in the form of answers to what the editors consider are the eleven most important questions

BLAIR FRASER,FRED BODSWORTH April 15 1952
Articles

WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE Foot-and-Mouth EPIDEMIC?

When the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was suddenly made public in February, Maclean's assigned two of its editors to get at the facts behind what threatens to be a major economic calamity. Fred Bodsworth flew to Regina for an on-the-spot report. Blair Fraser, in Ottawa, dug into the political implications of the outbreak. Their joint findings are presented on the following pages in the form of answers to what the editors consider are the eleven most important questions

BLAIR FRASER,FRED BODSWORTH April 15 1952

WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE Foot-and-Mouth EPIDEMIC?

When the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was suddenly made public in February, Maclean's assigned two of its editors to get at the facts behind what threatens to be a major economic calamity. Fred Bodsworth flew to Regina for an on-the-spot report. Blair Fraser, in Ottawa, dug into the political implications of the outbreak. Their joint findings are presented on the following pages in the form of answers to what the editors consider are the eleven most important questions

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BLAIR FRASER

FRED BODSWORTH

Was there negligence in dealing with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease?

Yes—on two counts. Two federal departments were at fault. Immigration officials have not taken proper precautions since the First World War to see that immigrants coming to Canada did not bring the disease with them. The Department of Agriculture allowed the epidemic to spread for two and a half months before seeking conclusive proof of what it was.

Why did Agricultural Department veterinarians hesitate so long before sending material for the laboratory tests which would have produced a correct diagnosis?

Government vets themselves have no explanation for this except to say that their own top officials didn’t think it necessary. They were satisfied by their field tests, and by the fact that the first cattle to be infected recovered quickly, that the disease was vesieular stomatitis.

Unhappily the Agriculture Department is so organized that the Health of Animals Division, which employs the veterinarians and does the field work, is quite separate from the Animal Pathology Division, which employs the scientists and does

the laboratory work. Dr. Thomas Childs, head of the Health of Animals Division, had a telegraphic report of the outbreak on Dec. 1 and a detailed written report on Dec. 7. Dr. C. A. Mitchell, head of the Animal Pathology Division, first heard of it on Feb. 14, three days after Childs had left Ottawa on vacation. There was no common immediate superior to whom both men report, and who might have asked either to get the other’s opinion on these alarming reports from Saskatchewan.

What were the precise steps taken to diagnose the disease?

Last Nov. 26 a Saskatchewan farmer named Leonard T. Wass walked into his big red barn for the morning milking. His farm was at McLean, Sask., thirty miles east of Regina, and Wass was running it alone.

Wass noticed three of his thirty-four cows were refusing to eat. By Nov. 28 he found twenty-four of them had tongue blisters and were giving very little milk. Wass remembered the epidemic of vesicular stomatitis that swept Saskatchewan and Montana in 1939. These were the symptoms.

He called Dr. H. Richards, veterinarian of Indian Head, who was sick in bed but prescribed a laxative by telephone. Two neighbors came over to help Wass administer it.

On Dec. 1 the cows were no better. Wass called Dr. Harold Hunter, of Regina. Next day Hunter picked up Dr. E. E. Carlson and Dr. Norman James, government veterinarians of the Regina bureau, Health of Animals Division, and drove out to the Wass farm.

Hunter, Carlson and James all thought the cows had vesicular stomatitis, but they did not merely take it for granted. Even before going to Wass’ farm James had reported to Ottawa the appearance of “a suspected contagious disease.” Childs sent back immediate orders for a thorough examination which James duly performed.

He gathered material sloughed off the tongues of infected cattle and brushed it into the tongues of two of Wass’ five horses. This is a routine field test to distinguish vesicular stomatitis from footand-mouth disease. Horses are even more susceptible than cows to stomatitis, but they’re immune to foot-and-mouth. If a horse reacts to inoculation, that’s taken as proof that the disease is not the dreaded scourge but the relatively mild, relatively commonplace stomatitis.

By a fantastic and still unexplained stroke of misfortune Wass’ two horses did develop symptoms that looked like stomatitis — small blisters on tongues and gums. Meanwhile, by the same ill luck, the twenty-four infected cows apparently recovered. By Dec. 8, the same day as the symptoms appeared in the horses, all twenty-four cows had normal temperatures and a milk flow restored almost to the level of Nov. 25. .Small wonder that James reported to Ottawa: “I am now satisfied

that we are not dealing with a dangerous infectious disease and I recommend that the quarantine be terminated.” It was.

No one was really surprised when, four days later, one of the neighbors who had helped Wass give his cows their medicine reported two of his own cows, and one bull, frothing at the mouth and sloughing skin from tongues. The other helpful neighbor found a calf showing blisters. Both were

quarantined, but both herds recovered quickly and the quarantines were lifted on Dec. 27.

The next development, was more alarming. Burns and Co., the big western meat-packing firm, found thirty of the two hundred and fifty-two cattle in their Regina feed lot showing symptoms of stomatitis. The feed lot was quarantined. This was the first outbreak beyond the immediate neighborhood of the Wass farm, and the first known opportunity for a really wholesale spreading of the deadly virus.

It is taken for granted now, of course, that the “stomatitis” was really foot-and-mouth disease. Even now this has not been proved—the cattle in the Burns lot recovered quickly, as the Wass cattle had done, and none of them showed the foot lesions which are characteristic of the plague. However, even Dr. Thomas Childs (who naturally bears the heaviest load of responsibility for accepting the diagnosis of stomatitis) is now convinced that all these early outbreaks were foot-and-mouth disease in a misleadingly mild form.

Whether a prompt laboratory test would have kept the virus out of the Burns feed lot is less certain. The only connection which can be traced between the Burns lot and the Wass farm was the sale of five calves by Wass to the Burns Co. on Nov. 23. This was three days before the first outbreak in Wass’ own herd. Presumably, therefore, the virus could have been carried to the Burns lot anyway. But of course it would have been pursued much sooner, and with far greater hope of complete success, had the laboratory test been made on Dec. 2 when Dr. James first saw the Wass cattle.

In any case, the Continued on page 58

Who Is to Blame For The Foot-and-Mouth Epidemic?

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laboratory test was not taken. The Burns cattle also made an apparent recovery and the quarantine was lifted Jan. 17. Meanwhile Childs himself had come to Regina to address the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Livestock Board on Jan. 15. He looked at the Burns cattle, which by that time seemed almost entirely cured, and he

left for Ottawa the day the quarantine came off.

But now the disease began to spread in earnest. It cropped up in a dozen new herds, most of them west of Regina along Wascana Creek into which the Burns plant sewage is emptied. Cattle were much sicker now—blisters were bigger, recoveries slower, the spread through individual herds much faster and more complete. Horses were still not catching it. Except for those “several vesicles on tongues and gums” of two Wass horses Dec. 8 not a symptom had shown on any horse.

People were worried by this. Farmers began asking if veterinarians were sure this wasn’t foot-and-mouth disease, to which horses are immune. Vets themselves began to have doubts. One Regina practitioner says that Dr. Carlson, the government vet, wrote “more than once” to Dr. Childs urging that the diagnosis be checked in the Animal Pathology laboratory, which is at Hull, Que.

Childs stuck to the belief it was stomatitis. A private veterinarian in Regina quotes Childs as having said, about this time: “You boys are looking

for bears behind every bush.” (Questioned in Ottawa several weeks later Childs didn’t recall having made any such statement. Neither did he recall that anyone, either orally or in writing, had suggested to him that the disease might really be foot-and-mouth disease and that laboratory tests should be made.)

On Feb. 11 Childs left Ottawa on statutory leave, the first he had taken for three years. Next day Carlson telephoned Ottawa and spoke to Dr. O. Hall, assistant director of the Health of Animals Division. He thought someone from the Animal Pathology lab should come out at once to gather infected material for testing. The laboratory was busy and short-handecl, so Carlson was instructed to gather the material himself and send it to Ottawa as fast as he could.

Meanwhile the disease had broken out again at Burns and Co. Carlson took fluid from three of their infected cows, sent if off to Ottawa where it arrived Feb. 16 and was immediately turned over to Dr. C. A. Mitchell for the laboratory test which would, and did, establish conclusively that this was indeed foot-and-mouth disease.

On the same day, Feb. 16, Childs came into the office to pick up his mail and learned what had taken place. He did not wait for a report on the laboratory test. Canceling his vacation he flew at once to Regina with his chief veterinarian, Dr. Kenneth Wells. They clapped a quarantine on nine municipalities around Regina— twenty-five hundred square miles— and closed the Burns plant. Childs then went back to Ottawa. Wells stayed in Regina to await the laboratory report. By this time neither he nor anyone else had much doubt what it would be. Wells, in particular, is said to have suspected foot-and-mouth disease several weeks earlier.

Laboratory tests were completed in the record time of eight days. The report: “Type A, foot - and - mouth

disease.”

Has there been any negligence in guarding against infection from abroad?

Yes. It cannot be proved that negligence in the Department of Immigration led to this particular outbreak. It can be proved nevertheless that this federal department has failed—and has failed for many years—to take precautions against the introduction of animal diseases from outside Canada.

Only eight diseases are considered to be possible weapons of biological warfare, and all eight attack animals—no known human disease is sufficiently infectious. Of the eight, rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease are probably the most serious.

It was first believed, and later denied, that Willi Bruentjen, a German immigrant farm worker, brought the disease to Canada. This cannot be proved or disproved conclusively. But it is a fact that he left an area in Germany affected by the plague and came to the very spot in Canada where the disease was to break out, wearing the same boots. There is no other plausible explanation as to how the disease reached the Wass farm where Bruentjen worked. In the interval nobody checked Willi Bruentjen or any other immigrant as a carrier of footand-mouth disease.

Immigration officers have enlisted Health Department men to screen Europeans for personal health, and Justice Department men to screen for political purity. Apparently nobody thought to tell them, until too late, to watch out for these animal plagues as well.

Is there danger that the disease has, or will, spread?

Ya—serious danger. Not until a year liter the last infected animal has been slaughtered and buried can we be sure "he plague has been stamped out.

This virus, the smallest known organism bearing infection, has more lives than an alley cat. It can live in a cool moist spot for nearly a year (longest neasured period, three hundred and forty-five days,). In the recent MexL-o outbreak it flared up in Dec. 1950. a year after the last previous

reported case, and again in Aug. 1951. It’s so hard to kill that U. S. scientists are not allowed to have it in the country even for research—all their laboratory work is done in Europe. If a cow with foot-and-mouth disease slobbers on a blade of grass that grass can infect a healthy cow months later.

This was the scourge that twice invaded the Burns feed lot, from which meat and live cattle are shipped via Winnipeg to eastern Canada. The infection may have arrived with Wass’ five calves on Nov. 23. Cattle were moving freely out of the Burns lot for

more than a month after that before the first quarantine, Dec. 28, and for another month between Jan. 17 and Feb. 18 when the final, general quarantine was imposed.

Luckily both these periods fall after the big autumn movement of cattle eastward. Almost all the live cattle that left Burns’ lot were destined for immediate slaughter. Authorities believe they have traced every exception to that general statement. In any event, no case has yet appeared outside the quarantine area (not up to the moment of writing, that is).

But not until summer, at the earliest, can we be sure that some unlucky beast won’t pick it up in a cattle car, a feed lot, an abattoir that housed infected cattle from the Burns lot. Cold weather will keep the virus dormant, but alive. Summer heat will kill it—provided a cow in eastern Canada or B. C. doesn’t pick it up first.

How can we get rid of the virus in the infected places? And how can we tell when it’s gone?

Until the frost is out of the ground we can’t even start a Canadian winter keeps it alive almost indefinitely.

But now that spring is here, every place that may have housed infected cattle must be cleaned thoroughly. All animal refuse, all straw, even soil contaminated with cattle urine must be scraped up, burned or buried. Barns that are definitely known to be infected will probably be burned to the ground —at least, the government’s new compensation law allows payment for such destruction. Buildings, fences, and so on left undestroyed will be scrubbed and sprayed with two percent lye.

After disinfection the premises will be left empty for at least thirty days. Then test animals will be turned loose

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in them for another thirty days—pigs, most likely, since they can be relied upon to root about ancl dig out infection that might be lying in odd corners.

If no sign of foot-and-mouth disease has appeared in any of the test animals after thirty days the premises may be declared free of infection. Of course, the appearance of a new case at any point in the process would put the whole schedule back by weeks or months.

When can we hope for removal of the United States’ embargo?

The earliest possible date, under present U. S. laws and regulations, would be sixty days after Canada’s own Department of Agriculture has declared that foot-and-mouth disease has been eradicated here. It is conceivable, though hardly likely, that the Canadian authorities might declare the disease eradicated by midsummer this year. Theoretically that would permit removal of the U. S. embargo by late September.

Actually, even if U. S. authorities themselves were convinced the plague had been scotched, they’d be unlikely to give us a clearance in the middle of a presidential election campaign.

That is no time to rouse suspicion among the farm vote. No matter what happens, therefore, it’s almost certain the embargo will stay on until 1953.

Is there any hope the U.S. ban might be modified if it can’t be removed?

Not much. Canadian veterinarians are respected by their American colleagues and, for Canada alone, U. S. authorities might be willing to prohibit imports from infected regions only, and let the rest of the country trade freely. However, this would require an amendment to the law by both Houses of Congress—highly improbable in an election year.

Dr. M. S. Shahan, in charge of U. S. research on foot-and-mouth disease,

doubts that it would be done anyway. In Regina he told a Maclean’s editor: “Congress will probably refuse even to consider lifting the embargo for parts of Canada. We could do it safely for this country, but we couldn’t trust other countries with a similar plan. Argentina has been campaigning for this same thing for years. If we did it for you, we might have to do it for them.”

One faint but fearful possibility is that the U. S. embargo might remain in full force indefinitely. Cattle-producing states have always pressed for exclusion of Canadian cattle and meat. Now that the embargo is on they might summon enough political support to make it stick—even after Canada has wiped out foot-and-mouth disease.

What does all this mean to the Canadian economy?

Calamity. How great the damage is a matter of guesswork, but certainly it will be serious.

Loss of the export market itself will cost us about one hundred and twentyfive million U. S. dollars. That’s only the beginning. If the Canadian home market has a surplus of so much meat over normal requirements there is no telling what it might do to domestic prices. A surplus of only ten percent might well be enough to knock the bottom out of the market.

Each year Canadian farmers sell about $800 millions worth of cattle, sheep and hogs. The inventory of cattle alone on farms last year added up to $1.7 billions. If meat prices dropped twenty percent that would mean a loss of about $160 millions in farm income.

These losses would not be confined to the west, even though the disease itself may remain so. Last year’s exports included eleven million dollars’ worth of dairy cattle, mostly from eastern farms, and another eight million dollars in “purebred” cattle which presumably included both dairy and beef breeds.

Secondary impact of these losses in farm income will, of course, be felt everywhere. Fewer implements will be sold, therefore fewer made; fewer new suits, new automobiles, new anything you like, will be bought in rural Canada. There is really no end to the effect of a major blow like this, to any section of the economy.

Government spokesmen have already indicated that the farmer would not be left to bear the full burden of this disaster, but that means only that the taxpayer will take a share. If, for example, Ottawa decides to support the price of beef and pork the consumer will be paying part of his taxes to make sure that he also pays high for his meat.

Further complications are introduced by the internal embargoes which various provinces have placed upon meat from the prairies. Conceivably these could make meat fabulously expensive in the east and in B. C., and virtually worthless on the prairies. It’s more likely, though, that compromises will be worked out to provide an evenly balanced supply at fairly stable prices across the country.

All this, however, is based on the assumption that foot - and - mouth disease is or soon will be under control. If it should get really out of hand and become endemic here as it is in Europe and Argentina the calamity would become a catastrophe. Export markets would be gone for good. Cost of cattle and dairy production would be at least

one third higher—that’s the rough estimate of what this plague drains out of a country’s herds all the time.

There is every reason to hope that such a disaster will be averted—if only because Canada would spare no expense, no drastic action to prevent it. But it may cost us dear before we are through with this fight.

Could the plague have been started by Communist saboteurs?

It could have been, although there is no evidence that it was.

Foot-and-mouth disease is of three types, similar in symptoms but differing in virus. Vaccines effective against Type A are no good against Type O or Type C, and vice versa. It’s a fairly elementary guess that saboteurs would plant all three types at once to make control more difficult. All cases yet tested in Canada have been Type A. If Types O and C should show up, officials investigating the outbreak might revise their current belief that it was not an act of sabotage.

What effect will the epidemic have in Canadian politics?

One thing is sure—it will do the Liberal Government no good. If the disease should get out of hand and spread all over the country it is not fantastic to suppose it might bring about the Government’s downfall. People are unlikely to weigh the fine points of fairness when they are as badly hurt as Canadians would be should this scourge become general and quasi-permanent.

In the more likely event that it is stamped out effectively this year the Liberals will probably be able to soothe resentment. They have acted decisively and effectively since the facts have been known. They will argue with some plausibility that no cabinet minister is to blame because one or more permanent civil servants, in technical jobs, make errors of professional judgment.

There’s a little more to it than that, though. ,

It was no mere error of individual judgment that placed Health of Animals in one compartment, Animal Pathology in another; that left Immigration officers ignorant of what National Defense and Agriculture scientists both knew; that led officials in one government office to proceed as if they were operating alone and other government offices didn’t exist. This is one of the defects of Big Government, here or anywhere else.

The Liberals aren’t responsible for Big Government either, perhaps, hut they’ve had the advantages of it. Now they’re getting one of the disadvantages. ★