August 06, 2012

Foot In Mouth Disease

While I wait for your suggestions (please, preferably on Facebook where it's easier to track them), I thought I'd get to writing something anyway.  And, as Eid approaches, my thought naturally turned to edible farm animals.

Actually, it wasn't the thought of Eid, it was this article from "Al Arabiya" that a friend shared with me earlier this evening.  For non Arabic-readers, I should explain that there now appears to be some kind of international ban on imports of Omani beef and lamb.  I don't know how big Oman's meat exports are, but even if small, I'm sure that the principle is itself disturbing.  The reason?  Apparently, there is an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Sultanate.

For those who don't know, foot and mouth is a viral infection in cattle and sheep that causes flu-like symptoms and painful ulceration in the mouths and feet of those animals.  It is very, very infectious, and can survive for quite a while outside the body i.e. be passed around other than by direct contact between animals.  Apparently it's also transmitted sexually, especially in cattle.  There's probably a joke about that somewhere, but I'm not sure I can be bothered.

Two important points, though.  1.  It cannot be caught by humans.  2.  It CAN be passed around by humans, e.g. on their clothing or shoes as they move between one farm and another, for example, or from an area of recent infection to a livestock market.  Both of these things are important because they beg the question: why is nobody talking about this?

Even the more intrepid of Oman's media organs seem to have ignored the subject completely.  Way back in March, a major outbreak was reported in the Omani print media, and a few weeks later, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth even announced participation in a seminar on the subject.  But that particular outbreak was in Egypt. Not Oman.  Fine to talk about the neighbours' diseases.  But not your own.

I actually grew up in a rural area, and had friends who were farmers.  From early childhood I remember scares about this disease, and how seriously the farming community took it.  The thing is though, that the disease itself is not particularly terrible.  It is just very easy to spread.  So the seemingly default position of government bodies in Oman to shut the door on any bad news, is not just embarrassing when others are reporting it, but dangerous.  

Firstly, word will get around anyway, and in the absence of information, people will be worried.  There is nothing more unnerving than knowing you are not being told the truth.  I can understand that the Ministry or whoever, does not want a "food scare", especially in the run up to Eid when a whole fresh local sheep or two is the staple order for many people.  But in this modern information age, that food scare is inevitable as the story gets out, and worse because it will not be accompanied by the simple piece of information that eating the sheep won't hurt you anyway.  That has to make any potential food scare worse.  People will inevitably hear about this outbreak, but they might not hear that it's OK to go ahead and eat their local Omani lamb.  They really should.

And secondly, without any information, how can the public take any precautions?  As I said, the main worry about foot and mouth disease is that it is easily transmitted by people between farms and livestock populations.  If you don't announce this publicly, educate people about staying away from farms so as not to spread infection, introduce hygiene measures, and perhaps ban the movement of livestock for a period, how can you control the spread of the disease?  Rather like the crime reports that are never published until the criminal is caught (and, if foreign, his picture published in the paper), the culture of secrecy and stifling bad news, is damaging.  If there is a spate of burglaries in Al Khoudh, people should be warned to lock their doors, and appeals for witnesses made.  And now, by the same token, if there is a need for measures to prevent the spread of an economically-damaging disease, people need to know what precautions to take.

There was a notorious non-Omani figure advising on information policy in Oman in the seventies and eighties, who played no small part, as I understand it, in encouraging and protecting the culture of saying nothing.  But when most people didn't even have a telephone at the time, let alone 24-hour news from around the world in any language on their mobiles, that might have been easier to manage.  Now, it's just a bit shameful, and the object of justified ridicule.

I don't know the statistics or details - only that the proper international authorities on these matters seem to have reported this outbreak before anyone in Oman has.  But there is another angle on this: it's always amusing to see how the most stifled news organisations in the GCC delight in reporting the misfortunes of their neighbours: Saudis or Emiratis writing about problems in Oman, but ignoring the global headlines in their own dominions for fear of a kick in the groin from Inspector Al Knacker.  And in this case, I wonder if Oman hasn't been singled out unfairly?  Having lived in this region a long time, I've been aware of endemic foot and mouth disease in Saudi Arabia and Jordan to name but two countries.  It's always there.  Generally, the small size of most farms and the practice of slaughtering on the premises in many cases, limits the spread and the recurrence of epidemics.  But as the food industry (sadly) trends further towards the "modern" model of large scale industrial farming and centralised processing, the incidence of these outbreaks is bound to increase.

So, when you do eventually hear this topic discussed elsewhere, please bear these things in mind: do buy whatever you want from the butcher; you can still eat everything.  Don't visit farms or slaughterhouses or such places if you can avoid it, and if you do, change your clothes and clean your shoes with disinfectant before you go to another one.  And thirdly, whatever happens, don't worry: you've been living with foot and mouth on and off in this region for your whole life.  It's just that nobody ever told you.

Feel better now? *cough*


The Foot has, apparently, been removed from the Mouth at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth.  A statement has been issued as well as messages to the public asserting the that Omani meat is perfectly safe to eat.  Quite right too.  There's still no information to the public about how to minimise the spread of foot and mouth disease, unfortunately, but we're in the right direction.  Maybe next the Saudis will admit that foot and mouth is all over the region, including in the "Magic Kingdom", and stop pointing the finger.

(P.S.  Thank you Fatima for sharing the statement)


hoas said...

yes LS i agree with you, it is shameful. and as the 'jungle drums' out here work so well amongst the omanis, pointless.
far better to publish the truth so that the more wild rumours don't get a look in.
and who was that notorious non-omani? Mr A?

Fatma said...

This was the reply from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I believe that it is possible (although very rare) for humans to catch foot & mouth. Maybe a slightly altered form of it.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I did hear of one case of a scientist in Jordan getting cold-like symptoms after a long period of dealing with the virus as part of his work.

But I guess the point remains that eating meat isn't going to harm you unless you choke on it!

Fatma said...

You are welcome :)

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