[Viewpoint] The foot-and-mouth debacle

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[Viewpoint] The foot-and-mouth debacle

Wild boars, the customary enemy of livestock farmers, were rare this winter. They, too, were victims of a lethal predator - foot-and-mouth disease, which viciously wiped out cloven-hoofed animals across the nation. Deer, sheep and boars in the wild as well as domestic animals fell helpless to the deadly virus.

Experts say an infected hog can dispel approximately 100 million cells of foot-and-mouth virus a day, and inhaling 100,000 of them can lead to infection. The virus can be blown by winds as far as 300 kilometers (186 miles), and that’s what the ruthless winter winds did this season, permeating the nation.

It was the country’s worst epizootic epidemic in the history of its livestock farming industry.

The history of mankind is the story of battles with bacterial and viral epidemics. Korea’s quarantine system, despite the country’s tech-savviness and economic status, revealed itself to be bizarrely antiquated.

In 1859, under the rule of the illiterate King Cheoljong, a cholera plague killed 400,000 people, or 3 percent of the Joseon kingdom’s population. Carcasses wrapped in straw were strewn across the nation. Drawings of gods to scare ghosts were displayed in every village. The straw-wrapped corpses were hung over city walls in hopes of repelling ghosts intent on returning home to haunt.

On Nov. 23 last year, when the first foot-and-mouth disease symptoms appeared in stockyards of Andong, North Gyeongsang, quarantine authorities packed up 2 tons of excrement and brought them to the nearest laboratory facility in Paju, Gyeonggi. The test came back positive a week later. But in the meantime, the contaminated animals spread the virus. Quarantine officials belatedly tried to contain it through sterilization and culling.

With few signs of the outbreak’s slowdown, quarantine officials ended up following the virus as it wreaked havoc on 42,000 farmyards and led to the slaughtering of 3 million livestock, or an average of 700 per farm.

As quarantine officials battled with frozen aerosol hoses, the infectious disease, strangely active in the cold weather, swirled around looking for new targets.

The difference between the epidemics of ancient days and today is that instead of humans, it is poisoned animals that haunt the country.

A battle against an infectious virus is a serious one in any country. But Korea may top the list in its incredibly poor response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. In the past, Britain and France mobilized special military forces to contain the disease, considering it as hazardous as germ warfare.

Biological warfare specialists in those countries are experts in eradicating contaminated animals without endangering the environment while halting the spread of infection.

The Korean military, too, has such experts, but they were not called in to help. They left the war against the disease to government quarantine officials who fought night and day, some losing their lives from overworking and others falling ill from fatigue and suffering nightmares from the number of animals they were forced to kill.

Disorganization in the quarantine system also posed a problem. The disease broke out across the nation, but quarantine responses fell under the responsibility of local governments, leading to a lack of coordinated response. Few local governments owned expensive clinical test facilities, and the laboratories that could do the tests were scarce and tight on both budget and experts.

Vaccines were also hard to get. The government hastily imported vaccines from Europe to cover 11 million animals, but the animals aren’t safe until they receive their third vaccination six months later.

Hollow-eyed farmers stand in front of their empty stockyards. They dare not start up their businesses after the nightmarish culling of their precious stock. But instead of lamenting their ill fortune, many ask themselves if they were guilty or negligent. Maybe some were sloppy with their hygiene and practices, but most were mere victims of a vicious disease.

Farmers have been promised generous compensation from the government, getting 130 percent of the market price of each animal in cash. They are far better off than their peers in Japan.

The Japanese government pays 33 percent of the market price in compensation for slaughtered swine or cattle, making them partly responsible for the spread of the disease. Korea’s 130-percent payment can tempt farmers to be sloppy about protecting their livestock to make quick money.

Vegetable and fruit are graded according to their eco-friendliness and chemical-free levels. The livestock industry should adopt a system to grade its hygiene level to make quarantine control a habit.

We must remember that foot-and-mouth disease does not simply kill wild and domestic hogs. We may also face water contamination from our antiquated quarantine response.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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