Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth Diseases: Background information when reading Wish You Were Here

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Wish You Were Here

by Graham Swift

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift X
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2012, 336 pages
    Jan 2013, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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Beyond the Book:
Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth Diseases

Print Review

In Graham Swift's novel, Wish You Were Here, the Luxton family twice loses their dairy herds to mass slaughter in the wake of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreaks. Two very distinct and separate diseases, BSE and FMD, when they surface in agriculture, can be utterly devastating to farmers and national economies.

BSE is more commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease" and is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that attacks cows specifically. It causes the brain and spinal cord of affected animals to suffer a spongy deterioration, so called because of the formation of tiny sponge-like holes in the brain tissue. The United Kingdom has been most extremely impacted by BSE where it was first identified by a laboratory in November 1986.

Some scientists believe that, in rare instances, humans can develop a degenerative neurological disorder with similar symptoms to BSE, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), by eating food contaminated with brain, spinal cord or digestive tracts of infected cows. Although evidence suggests that, in very rare cases, BSE can cause vCJD in humans, vCJD is not related to BSE, and there is also considerable evidence that vCJD can develop for reasons unrelated to BSE - not least, a number of cases where life-long vegetarians have contracted and died of vCJD. For a time, scientists hypothesized that BSE might have been introduced to cattle by feeding them sheep parts infected with Scrapie (a fatal degenerative disease found in sheep and goats since the 18th century, which does not appear to be transmissible to humans), but, after much research, no link was found.

It appears that, in normal circumstances, BSE is a rare mutation in cattle that stays isolated because it cannot be spread by contact, as such it is possible that it may have been around for a long time before it was identified in 1986. The outbreak of BSE in the 1980s in the UK can be traced to the food the cattle were eating. Farmers in many parts of the developed world had taken to feeding their herds (which are naturally herbivores) the remains of slaughtered farm animals - including cattle, sheep and chickens. This mix is called "meat and bonemeal" (MBM) and was used as a protein supplement in the cattle's diet.

Once the source of the problem became known, the UK government banned feeding MBM to cattle in an effort to halt the spread (and other countries including the USA and Canada put in similar regulations). In addition, mass slaughters of potentially infected cattle were carried out by the order of the UK government. During the time of the infection, more than 180,000 cattle in the UK were believed to be infected and over 4.4 million animals were killed to prevent further spread of the disease.

North America did not see its first case of BSE until December of 1993, which appeared in Alberta, Canada. The first U.S. case was recorded in Texas in December of 2003, but it was later discovered to be a cow imported from Canada. In April 2012, a cow in California was found to be carrying the disease - the first case in the USA since 2006 - but it should be noted that only a tiny fraction of cows in the USA are tested and most cattle are slaughtered before the age when BSE could be identified - it is a slow developing disease that is usually not visible in cattle until the age of four to five years old - whereas most beef cattle are slaughtered by two years old.

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is also known as "Hoof and Mouth Disease." This disease is a viral infection that is sometimes fatal in livestock and affects cloven-hoofed animals: cattle, sheep, buffalo, bison, goats, pigs and deer. FMD spreads rapidly and has a very short incubation period - between 2 and 12 days. FMD causes very high fevers and blisters inside the mouth and on the feet. These blisters can rupture and cause lameness in affected animals.

Because of its quick spread, this disease is a serious threat to the farming industry. It is extremely rare for humans to contract this disease (the last confirmed case in the UK was in 1996) but it is very easy for humans to transport the disease from one herd to another via, for example, infected clothing. Great Britain saw a serious outbreak of FMD in the spring and summer of 2001. So widespread was this outbreak that the country's general and local elections were postponed for one month and all public rights of way across farmland were closed for considerably longer to minimize the chance of human traffic spreading the disease between herds. More than 2,000 confirmed cases were recorded and more than 700,000 cattle and sheep were killed to stop the further spread of FMD. When the crisis was deemed over, in October of 2001, the estimated costs of containment and losses to the agriculture industry were pegged at $16 million. The number of animals killed was highly criticized, as more than 80% of the killed livestock were free of FMD.

This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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