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What are endemic diseases?

Endemic diseases are diseases which exist permanently in a population or region, such as the common cold in humans. They differ from exotic invasive diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, which are not usually present. Eradication of some endemic diseases is possible, although it can be resource heavy and time consuming.


Why are endemic livestock diseases important?

Endemic diseases undermine animal health and welfare. Affected animals are also less productive because they grow more slowly and yield less milk. These effects create costs and difficulties for farmers. In addition, the treatment of endemic diseases may involve antibiotics, which could have implications for human health.


Why do animals get these diseases?

Animals are vulnerable to endemic diseases just as humans are (think of colds, stomach bugs and other common viruses). A number of factors may be involved in disease spread. Livestock may come into contact with infected animals or wildlife at home or when moved between farms. People, animals and equipment can carry germs onto farms. An animal's genetics may also influence susceptibility to infection.


Why BVD and lameness?

Bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) and lameness are two of the most prevalent diseases in cattle and sheep in the UK today. They differ in terms of their symptoms, how they are managed, and how they can be spread. Using them as case studies allows us to compare and contrast in order to build a better understanding of endemic diseases in general.


What is lameness?

Lameness is a broad term that includes any abnormality which causes an animal to change the way they walk. This can be caused by a range of factors, including different foot and leg conditions caused by disease, management or environmental factors. Examples include bruising, sores and cuts or hoof conditions caused by disease.

Lameness is generally a result of a range of factors, although common ones have been recognised as poor quality floors in housing, poor cow tracks, animals being forced to stand for too long on hard surfaces, ineffective foot trimming, infectious diseases and poor nutrition. Given the range of causes, it may not be possible to eradicate lameness entirely, and there is no one ‘magic’ bullet to cure it.


What is BVD?

Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) is a contagious viral disease that predominantly affects cattle. Once initially affected, animals can become persistently infected (PI) with the disease, and pass the virus on to other animals. Methods of spread include passing from mother to unborn calf, via nose to nose contact with a carrier animal or through the semen of infected bulls. BVD can also be spread through farm visitors or equipment contaminated with the virus.

Infection with BVD is not always obvious but signs include:

BVD is not a zoonosis, i.e. it cannot be transferred to humans. Infected animals do not pose a risk to human health, and meat from these animals can safely enter the human food chain.

Read more about the disease on the BVDFree England website.


Will these diseases affect any of the animal products I am likely to eat?

No. These diseases are not zoonotic, i.e. they cannot transfer to humans, so do not present concerns about food safety or human health. Also, there are strict regulations about how long animals must be free of medicines before they can enter the human food chain, to ensure that our food contains no residues.

Concerns about their impact on human health relate to the use of antibiotics, and anti-microbial resistance (AMR). AMR means that drugs that once worked are no longer effective in treating the same disease. This has implications for both human and animal health. Farmers and veterinarians follow RUMA guidelines, which encourage them to use antibiotics responsibly, i.e. only when an animal is sick. If we can reduce the number of sick animals, we will reduce the use of antibiotics and this will benefit both human and animal health.


Do these diseases occur in specific production systems?

Because there are so many different factors involved, endemic diseases can occur in any system, including indoor, free-range and organic. Some diseases are more common in intensive systems. Others are more likely to be found in outdoor systems, because these are exposed to environmental factors such as wildlife and micro-organisms.


What do these diseases mean for animal welfare?

Whether it causes pain or a general sensation of being unwell, sickness affects an animal's wellbeing.


Why are these diseases still around?

Although there are ways to manage and treat them, the number of different factors involved can make it hard for farmers to do this successfully. Environmental factors, for instance, including the weather, can make these diseases difficult to control.

FIELD is investigating why these diseases continue to be present, and what can be done to reduce them.


Can I contribute to the FIELD project?

We would welcome your ideas, observations and questions. Visit contact us to reach the team.