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Britain still fighting foot-and-mouth

LONDON — Two weeks after Britain restricted the movement of animals through the countryside to try to slow the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, officials feared Friday that a second wave of the livestock ailment was beginning to hit.

Animals can carry the highly contagious virus for up to two weeks without showing symptoms, and officials had hoped the number of new cases would begin falling. The first case of the disease was confirmed Feb. 20; tight restrictions on the movement of livestock were imposed three days later.

But the outbreak has swelled steadily in the past several days, and Friday's 20 new confirmed cases were the largest daily total yet. A total of 127 cases have been identified, scattered throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

So far, 73,000 animals have been destroyed in hopes of stopping the spread, and officials say the huge pyres of carcasses are becoming a nuisance. Many farmers have been forced to let slaughtered animals' corpses rot in fields, and some urged the government to appoint a special crisis manager.

"We are calling for a foot-and-mouth czar or enforcer," said Ian Johnson of the South West National Farmers' Union.

"It needs to be someone at a high enough level to make decisions and implement them, and I am not sure (Agriculture Secretary) Nick Brown in his current position is able to do that," he said.

Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore admitted that disposal of slaughtered animals has become a problem.

"We are dealing with huge farms with a lot of animals so we have huge problems with disposal of carcasses," he said. He proposed that animals be transported to rendering plants for destruction.

Most early cases were reported in pigs, but the disease is increasingly being found in cattle, adding to fears that a second wave of the outbreak may be hitting.

It has virtually paralyzed parts of rural Britain. Authorities have closed rural footpaths, discouraged travel in the countryside and canceled sporting events.

The European Union has closed all livestock markets and banned imports of meat, livestock and milk products from Britain.

France has destroyed 35,500 animals and thousands more have been culled across the continent.

Cars and trucks rolling off ferries at French ports on the English Channel must pass through trays of disinfectant. At some Italian airports, passengers are required to pass through disinfectant points. In Ireland, some Saint Patrick's Day celebrations have been revised or postponed.

Queen Elizabeth II postponed a visit next week to Wiltshire, in western England, because cases of the disease were found nearby, Buckingham Palace said.

Meanwhile, farmers in uninfected Australia hope the crisis will open new markets for them. Prime Minister John Howard said Friday that Australia will try to boost beef sales to Europe.

Foot-and-mouth disease — which strikes cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep, pigs and cows — is easily spread by afflicted animals or by carriers such as humans, horses and wild animals. It can also become airborne, though officials say it seems to have spread that way only several times during this outbreak.

Meat from an infected animal is safe to eat, but animals that recover from the disease produce less meat or milk. So a country that imports livestock touched by the disease risks infecting its own herds, thereby endangering its export business.