SEOUL, South Korea — The worst outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease ever to sweep the Korean peninsula continues to defy efforts to be contained in South Korea, while depriving famine-stricken North Korea of a vital food source.
Every day, thousands of cows and pigs fall victim to the highly contagious viral disease, which is characterized by fever and blisters that erode the mouth and foot areas of cloven-hoofed animals. Most affected animals recover, but the disease leaves them debilitated and still capable of spreading the virus to other animals.
In an attempt to rid the country of the scourge before the virus reaches uncontrollable proportions, North and South Korean officials have slaughtered millions of the diseased animals.
Far from solving the problem, however, the mass killings have caused more worry in both North and South Korea. In the South, the fear is that the summer rainy season will spread the disease even further, while in the North people are most concerned about food shortages during the harshest winter in years.
“Nobody imagined this kind of thing can happen,” said Ahn Seung-dae of the South Korean government’s Central Disaster Center.
In the South, where the disease has already forced the killing of more than 3 million pigs and 150,000 cows since the outbreak began in November, the worries have heightened as the rainy season looms closer. The fear is that the disease will spread from the millions of carcasses already buried in 4,400 sites, as water seeps through the earth into streams and rivers.
According to some reports, authorities under pressure sometimes buried cattle alive and failed to dig the burial pits deep enough or line them with plastic. As the weather gets warmer and the carcasses begin to rot, the fear is that they will contaminate nearby water supplies.
“I’m worried about the rainy season,” said Song Dae-suk, a veterinarian with the Korea Institute of Bio-Science and Bio-Technology. “There may be a collapse of the burial places. It may be serious.”
"The problem in North Korea is believed to be much worse,” he said. “The level of life is very low in North Korea and hygiene is not good.”
The disease adds urgency to appeals by North Korea to foreign governments for aid. The virus affects animals that people desperately need to eat, while also depriving farmers of the livestock they depend on to till fields and transport crops.
North Korea has quarantined some farms and culled diseased animals, though hard facts and figures as to exactly where the disease has spread and how many animals are affected are unavailable.
Hoof-and-mouth disease does not spread to people, said Song, the veterinarian, but it can be transmitted easily from clothing and human waste to other animals. “And when we cook infected beef and pork, the speed of spreading is faster still,” he said.
Such considerations have little meaning in North Korea, however, where many are reportedly so hungry they would rather eat sick animals than nothing at all.
“People will eat anything in desperation,” a woman who had escaped to China was quoted as telling Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts from Seoul by short wave into the North. “Even diseased meat is meat,” she said. “It's considered a waste to bury a whole animal. If you don’t eat it, you will die.”
Authorities in the South said they haven't seen a huge impact on beef consumption. Only 5 percent of all cows in the country have been killed, they say, and that's not enough to drive up prices.
South Korean agricultural officials, however, are accused of having waited too long to vaccinate livestock after the disease was first spotted in late November.
One reason for waiting, said Ahn Seung-dae at the Central Disaster Center, was that scientists at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture “are not sure of the effect of the vaccine.” He acknowledged that the ministry also feared that beef and pork exports would drop as buyers became aware of the need to vaccinate Korea’s cow and pigs.
“We changed the policy,” said Ahn. “At first we killed all animals on a farm," not just infected animals. Since health officials began vaccinating healthy animals in late December, he said, “now we kill only infected animals.”
Song Dae-suk warned that vaccinations do not provide a total safeguard against the disease. “The maximum protection is 80 percent,” he said.
In South Korea, said Song, vehicles carrying feed for livestock were initially believed to have transferred the disease between provinces. Then, it was the veterinarians themselves who unknowingly spread the disease despite wearing protective gear when they went to check on animals. Agents for drug companies are also believed to have spread the virus when bringing pharmaceuticals to farmers to combat the disease.
Still, why hoof-and-mouth disease has been more virulent this year than in previous years remains a mystery. This year's epidemic is far and away the worst South Korea has seen. The number of animals killed is at the highest it's been since 2002, when 160,000 livestock were reported as having been culled.
Song believes that South Korean visitors and migrant workers in China and Vietnam were the sources of this year’s outbreak, bringing the disease back with them when they returned.
North Koreans who traveled to China, often secretly, are also believed to have returned with the disease, particularly after living and working on farms near the Yalu and Tumen River borders.
“We are trying to find the origins,” Song said. “The disease from China is very epidemic. Also it is spreading in Vietnam.”