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*

Addendum:

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)

To Blog, Or Not To Blog...

My dear readers, peace be upon you all, and blessings in the holy month of Ramadhan.  It's me.  The Linoleum Surfer.  I'm still here.

As I've just mentioned on Facebook, it's been months since I logged into this account, and seeing the sweet messages from some of you asking for more posts, or just enquiring about my personal welfare, is really quite touching.  Hints at some mysterious conspiracy have appeared in comments I see, but I am happy to say that I have not been abducted and silenced by some mysterious and censorious agency!  My blog colleague Mr Mutt is closer to the truth - "you lazy Surfer"!  Fact is I've been very busy with other things, both personal and professional (although not, as Sami mentioned on Facebook, getting married - all in due course!).

But, to be honest, I'd also become a little disillusioned with the whole process.  Much as my ego enjoys provoking debate, spouting my sometimes obnoxious opinions to any audience prepared to hear them, and generally enjoying my freedom of speech, I had been starting to feel a slight loss of purpose.  Perhaps that's overstating the case, that I had any purpose in the first place other than self-expression.  "Direction" might be a better word.

Those who have read many of my previous posts, will have noticed that I have veered from politics to social comment, to cod philosophy, to religion, to satire, to anything else that might have popped into my head.  Some of you seem to like that diversity, but I've sometimes wondered if I make any sense at all, writing one day about some hideous tragedy like a civil war, and the next day indulging in a bit of cheap racial stereotyping in the name of humour.  Not that I'm against a bit of cheap racial stereotyping or indeed any other kind of humour - it's a fundamental element of my most treasured human relationships.  I just can't help but wonder if this digressions into lighter fare undermines more important things.  Of course, all good humour has some social or philosophical relevance too, but where to draw the line is my question to myself.

One way or another, literally hundreds of people have expressed a liking for this mish-mash of writing (and thank you, really, I'm flattered), many of those have commented and debated here, and perhaps thousands have read at least an article or two.  So something works.  That, on a personal level is gratifying, and why I am back to answer some requests I've received to write again.

But what to write?  That's really the question.  There are times when I've felt so angry and frustrated at something going on in the world - the hypocrisy for example, of leaders calling for peace in Syria while supplying arms to sectarian militias in the hope of starting a war - that I've been sickened to write about anything more trivial.  Knowing that there might be more people interested in an installment of "What Does It Mean To Be..." (Indian and Filipino were in my mind next, perhaps...), than in the shameless war-mongering bullshit of international leaders, left me feeling rather flat.

Still, here I am, and perhaps I need to get over myself.  There's always room for a bit of light and shade, and if people want to read this or that to fill their coffee breaks, I should be glad anyone wants to read what I write at all!  So on that note, I'd welcome your feedback, please:  what would you like me to write about, either as specific subjects or, better still, what kind of previous articles or sketches or whatever, have you valued?

Whatever it is, thank you for your support, and for wanting this back.  Love you too,

"TLS"


P.S.  I've just noticed that in around eight months of not writing anything, I've had many more page views than my initial six months of writing regularly.  Maybe I should stay quiet and become the Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson of the blogosphere - no better career move than ceasing to be, it seems!