Urgent action is required to control a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and prevent its spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, According to the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (FAO), the outbreak could have serious implications for food security in the region.

Vaccines are urgently needed and international and regional organizations are ready to assist in developing a regional prevention, preparedness and action plan.

In Egypt, over 40,000 cases of the disease are suspected, according to official estimates, and  4,658 animals, mostly calves, have already died.  

Although foot-and-mouth disease has circulated in the country for some years, this is an entirely new introduction of a virus strain known as SAT2, and livestock have no immunity to it. According to FAO's livestock census data, 6.3 million buffalo and cattle and 7.5 million sheep and goats are at risk in Egypt.

Further to a request by the Egyptian Government, an FAO emergency team was in the country last week assessing the situation with veterinary authorities. They jointly set up a national FMD control strategy. The strategy is focused on limiting the disease's spread by implementing biosecurity measures and by use of vaccines when available.

"We are working closely to support the government to bring the outbreak under control,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO's chief veterinary officer. “The area around the Lower Nile Delta appears to be severely affected, while other areas in Upper Egypt and the west appear less so.", Lubroth called for strong action to prevent the disease from spreading further.

In order to help prevent the spread of the virus, livestock attendants are urged to take a series of measures including: limiting animal movements and avoiding contact with animals from other farms; avoiding purchasing animals in the immediate term since they could have come from contaminated sources; and properly disposing of carcasses preferably by incineration or, failing that, by burying them.

Vaccines are in short supply throughout Egypt. The country could need regional support in mobilizing vaccines effective against the SAT2 strain. Even if they become available quickly, vaccines sometimes take up to two weeks to confer immunity, so FAO is urging coordination at all levels of government to implement biosecurity measures to limit the spread of the disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease affects all cloven-hoofed animals, including sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo and pigs. It causes serious production losses and can be lethal, particularly to younger animals.

Meat and milk from sick animals are unsafe for consumption because foodstuffs entering the food chain should only come from animals that are known to be healthy. The disease does not affect humans.

The virus that causes FMD passes rapidly between animals through aerosol droplets as well as contact, but humans in close contact with animals can transport it via the soles of shoes, or on their hands or clothing.