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Utah works to keep the scourge out

The images from Europe are gruesome — a million cattle, sheep and pigs burning on crude wooden pyres, a controlled slaughter to prevent the spread of an insidious disease.

Friday, Utah's agriculture and health leaders gathered to dispel fears closer to home and to spread prevention tips they hope will keep the debilitating foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) from entering the United States.

The disease has exploded throughout Great Britain, into France and now Latin America. Borders are closing to trade, and huge swaths of land remain off-limits to humans. The economic loss continues to mount, with estimates in the billions of dollars.

While Europe scrambles to contain the epidemic, local officials worked to circle the wagons against it.

"The last time this disease was in the United States was 1929," Utah state veterinarian Michael R. Marshall said. "The pictorial memories of the disease are ingrained pretty well in the minds of many."

FMD is localized to cloven-hoofed animals, Marshall said. It is not known to spread from animals to humans, though humans may pass the disease to animals. It is an airborne virus that attaches to the hoofed-animal's mucous membranes, resulting in blisters and sores on their mouths, noses, genital areas and feet. Though not typically fatal, Marshall said high contagion levels and the animals' long-term debilitation warrant the widespread destruction taking place in Europe.

Utah Department of Agriculture Commissioner Cary G. Peterson said the epidemic in Europe also warrants heightened awareness and increased education in Utah. He encouraged farmers to closely monitor the health of their stock and people traveling outside the country to accurately fill out their declaration forms when returning home. The forms require passengers to report the transport of organic products like meats and cheeses into the United States, as well as any visits to areas where livestock is present.

Careful adherence to travel guidelines should ensure that the devastating disease stays out of Utah, Marshall said, and that is a must for Utah's farmers. Peterson estimated that 75 percent of Utah's agriculture economy comes from livestock.

"Economically, it would be a disaster that spread like wildfire," Marshall said. "Here in the United States, we have a population that is very susceptible. There is no immunity to the disease."

To prevent the disease from infiltrating Utah, U.S. Department of Agriculture plant health director Robert King said inspectors at every point of entry — including the Salt Lake City International Airport — have stepped up their efforts to ensure accurate customs declarations. Inspectors also are on hand to disinfect passengers as they deplane, King said. A simple bleach solution is sufficient to disinfect passengers' shoes, a common transport vehicle for FMD.

Though customs and USDA officials are intensifying their efforts, Marshall said the chances FMD could make an appearance in Utah are slim.

"I would think that if it comes here to the U.S., we would see it at our borders first," Marshall said. "We have an advantage, in that we are in the interior of the country. We also have the advantage that we are rural."

Of those coming to the United States from other countries, only those from Mexico are likely to arrive in Salt Lake City as a first stop, King said.

"What happens at the Salt Lake airport is miniscule compared to what goes on at other, larger airports," he said. "We get about six to seven international flights per week. By comparison, the Los Angeles airport gets 200 per day. Passengers coming from the U.K. coming to Salt Lake will clear (customs) at the first points of arrival."

That increases the risk for airports in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities. But King said Utahns should still be cautious.

"Our risk is low, based on what we're doing to try to keep FMD out," he said. "That's why it's so important that the public works with us to make sure it stays out."

Chelsea Hills and her sister, Monica Hills, Salt Lake City, were happy to comply as they arrived at the Salt Lake airport Friday. Though still red from the spring break sun in San Carlos, Mexico, their shoulders sagging under the weight of their bags, the Hills sisters said the wait was worthwhile.

"From what I've seen on the news, it's pretty terrible," Chelsea Hills said. "So an extra two minutes in line is well worth it, to make sure it doesn't come here."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com