Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in humans is rare, with only about 40 cases recorded since 1921, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But FMD is a highly contagious viral disease that causes fever and painful lesions in the hooves, mouths, and udders of cloven-hoofed animals. The last FMD outbreak in the United States was in 1929. The USDA has been on guard ever since. The U.S.Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a March 12 report the USDA’s efforts “could be strengthened.”

Although nearly a century has passed without a U.S. outbreak of FMD, the GAO says the disease could still reach the United States from countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe or South America.

“The United States is vulnerable to FMD transmission, given the large size and mobility of the U.S. livestock sector,” according to GAO. As of last year, the oversight agency says, the U.S. had 94 million head of cattle, 74 million swine, 5 million sheep, and more than 2 million goats.

If FMD did reach American shores, USDA would respond by killing infected or susceptible animals and vaccinating uninfected animals. The department would likely employ a combination of those strategies, depending on the situation.

The GAO report says USDA will be challenged to detect, control, and contain FMD quickly, eradicating the disease while stabilizing the industry and the economy while facilitating commerce in uninfected animals The report identifies 11 challenge areas for USDA, including a limited supply of FMD vaccine. The small amount of vaccine now available means USDA could only control a small FMD outbreak.

Current vaccine supplies are only sufficient to protect about 14 percent of the cattle in Texas or 4 percent of Iowa’s swine, leaving all the rest in the country susceptible. It is not a new concern. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 includes a provision to increase the FMD vaccine supply.

FMD is caused by a virus that is found in all secretions and excretions from infected animals, including breath, saliva, milk, urine, feces, semen and fluid from the lesions it causes. Animals can spread the virus for about four days before they are showing signs of infection.

USDA officials fear the virus could spread very quickly through large herds in the U.S. The Animal Health Protection Act authorizes USDA to detect, control and eradicate the disease in livestock. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) takes the lead on those enforcement efforts.

APHIS responds to outbreaks through surveillance, epidemiologic tracing, diagnostic testing, quarantines and stop-movement orders, biosecurity measures, stamping out and vaccines, and compensating owners for their losses.

USDA may access vaccine supplies, some held jointly with Canada and Mexico, which are stored in laboratories at Plum Island, NY, and in Lyon, France. A French manufacturer is prepared to convert concentrate into the finished vaccine for shipment to the U.S.

The U.S. government’s strategies for responding to any FMD outbreak are contained in a document called “The Red Book.”

“USDA, in coordination with industry, state, federal, and academic representatives, has also developed supply plans to secure the nation’s food supply and keep businesses operating during am FMD outbreak while managing the risk of spreading the outbreak, which would decrease the economic impact of an outbreak,” GAO’s 60-page report says.

Among the GAO recommendations are for acquiring access to the additional vaccine, developing a process for prioritiing and allocating vaccine, working with states on the vaccination strategy, and continue using predictive models for vaccination strategies.

GAO also recommends USDA line up more volunteers for use in emergency responses, improve communication planning for large scale responses, and nail down the compensation payment processes that would be used during an FMD outbreak. It also suggests using preparedness excises to practice for the real thing.

The principal author for the report was Steve D. Morris, director of Natural Resources and Environment for GAO.

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