Yilan recently saw an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. There have already been 14 outbreaks of the disease this year and the main reason for this is that after regaining power, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government changed policies aimed at preventing the disease and has given up its goals of eradicating it because the attitudes of officials responsible for disease prevention have slackened.
Foot-and-mouth disease is a serious illness that affects animals around the globe and has a massive impact on the development of the animal husbandry industry. When outbreaks of the disease hit the UK and Japan in the recent past, they were able to curb its spread in a short space of time. Taiwan experienced an outbreak in 1997, and in 1999 a plan to eradicate it was drawn up.
When the Democratic Progressive Party became the ruling party in 2000, the government of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) continued to use non-immunized piglets to test whether the disease existed among other animals on farms. This was the method used in the past in Taiwan and initially only one or two piglets were used. This gradually evolved so that whole groups of pigs were left without immunization. This policy was successfully followed for eight years and by 2008, four-fifths — or approximately 60,000 of Taiwan’s pigs — had not been immunized and there were no reports of foot-and-mouth disease during that period. Taiwan applied to the World Organization for Animal Health and gained recognition as a foot-and-mouth disease-free zone with vaccination. The final remaining step after this would have been to stop immunizations for all pigs in Taiwan, one year after which Taiwan could have gained recognition as a foot-and-mouth disease-free zone.
Unfortunately, after Ma took over in 2008, then-Council of Agriculture minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) changed the disease prevention policy and ordered the administering of foot-and-mouth disease vaccines to all pigs in 2009. By doing so, all the hard work and tens of billions of NT dollars spent on eradicating the disease was wasted and Taiwan once again became plagued by the disease which has required expenditure of at least NT$200 million (US$6.89 million) on vaccines to prevent outbreaks.
In the past, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine, workers involved in disease prevention from around Taiwan and a special task force aimed at stamping out foot-and-mouth disease would hold a monthly meeting to discuss how the eradication of the disease was progressing. At that time, non-structural protein, the antigen of the foot-and-mouth disease, was used each month to test the infection rate among pigs at various sites nationwide.
At the start of 2008, the rate of infection detected was lower than 0.1 percent, which showed that foot-and-mouth disease was very rare and clinical cases were no longer appearing. However, after 2009, routine meetings were no longer held by the team and the strict monitoring process was stopped. While the government demanded that all pigs be vaccinated, some farmers stopped cooperating and cases of foot-and-mouth disease were regularly reported. Taiwan lost its status as a foot-and-mouth disease-free zone with vaccination and infection rates have recently shot up to more than 16 percent.
Although in the past Taiwan employed some extremely conservative methods to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease, various sectors worked hard to achieve that goal. However, in the end, all that hard work and the results it achieved were thrown away.
Having failed to control foot-and-mouth disease, how can the Ma administration be deemd fit to deal with the even greater matters affecting the nation?
Lai Shiow-suey is an honorary professor in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Drew Cameron