LONDON (AP) — Britain's livestock farmers braced on Friday for a broadened slaughter that could see up to 1 million animals destroyed because of foot-and-mouth disease.
The National Farmers' Union has backed the Agriculture Ministry's new prevention measure, which calls for healthy sheep and pigs to be destroyed around three areas where the disease has been detected. However, other farming groups strongly oppose such a drastic measure.
Andrew Spence, the northeast coordinator for Farmers For Action, warned the ministry's plans would spark "rural revolt."
"Farmers up here will not tolerate anyone coming in and slaughtering animals that are not infected," Spence said.
Britain has taken increasingly severe measures to combat the highly contagious virus since the first case was confirmed Feb. 20, but nearly a month later the number of infected areas has swelled to 256 with no signs of tapering off.
One case has been confirmed in France and another in Northern Ireland, spurring European countries to strengthen their defenses against the disease. Countries across the world are slamming their doors to European livestock and meat, further damaging an industry crippled by mad cow disease and falling prices.
Foot-and-mouth disease poses no threat to humans, but when it strikes countries or trade blocs that had previously been certified as free of the ailment — such as Britain and the rest of the European Union — it can have disastrous commercial consequences.
Britain has already condemned more than 200,000 animals under its initial slaughter program, which called for infected animals and any they came in contact with to be destroyed.
Government officials are reluctant to estimate how many more animals will be culled under the new "slaughter on suspicion" program. Prime Minister Tony Blair's office has said it could claim around 100,000 healthy animals.
But Scotland alone announced Thursday that 200,000 sheep on 500 farms will be destroyed under the new regulations. National Farmers' Union leader Ben Gill predicted that more than 1 million animals would have to be killed.
Gill said the crisis was driving many farmers to desperation.
"It's just so soul-devouring, it absorbs every second of every minute of every day," he said.
Concerns about the disease continued to spread worldwide on Friday.
Palestinian Agriculture Minister Hikmat Zaid said the disease may have reached the West Bank. Three sheep in the West Bank towns of Hebron and Jenin are believed to have the disease, he said.
"There is a threat to Palestinian farms, and if we do not take immediate protection, our farms in Palestine and in the region will be in danger," Zaid told Al Ayyam newspaper.
On Friday, officials in the Philippines said they had imposed a temporary ban on imported livestock and meat from Europe, and Sri Lanka said Friday it would screen baggage of all arriving passengers on flights from Britain.
In contrast to panic in other countries, however, officials in Hong Kong said the disease is common to farms there and merits no special concern.
Foot and mouth disease in pigs is common in East Asia and has occurred in Hong Kong for more than 45 years, said Susanna Ho, spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The government uses vaccinations to control the disease.
In Europe, governments have said that the virus mutates so quickly that they fear vaccinations will be unable to control the disease.