Foot and mouth disease — Does it affect humans?

Originally Published: May 18, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 25, 2013
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Hi Alice,

I was curious as to whether the disease foot and mouth that is spreading through Great Britain has any effect on humans. Thank You.

Dear Reader,

Whether foot and mouth disease (FMD) has any effect on humans depends on what you mean by effect. If you are wondering if humans can get sick with the disease, then the answer is very, very rarely, if at all. FMD is a highly infectious disease that affects cloven-hooved animals, (cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, deer, llamas, alpacas, etc.), but it is not considered zoonotic (doesn’t transfer to humans). FMD is a painful and debilitating infection that causes fever as well as blisters primarily in the feet and mouth of infected animals within one to ten days of exposure to the virus. Animals sick with FMD are very fatigued and have a hard time eating or moving around. FMD should not to be confused with HFMD (Hand, foot, and mouth disease) which is a childhood disease, unrelated to FMD. Unlike FMD in animals, HFMD is a mild infection, primarily among children, caused by an altogether different virus than FMD, and can be easily addressed by a health care provider.

There is some disagreement among experts about whether or not humans can actually get FMD. Those who believe that is it possible note that suspected cases of humans getting FMD are extremely rare and involve people who have had close contact with infected animals — the FMD virus is spread through contact with the fluid from the blisters, saliva, milk and excrement of the sick animals. In humans, FMD symptoms are described as occurring two to six days after exposure to the virus, consisting of fever, sore throat, and blisters of the feet and mouth and resolving within a week after the last blister develops. Even among the rare cases of FMD in humans, no person-to-person transmission has been reported. Since you mentioned Great Britain, they haven’t had a case reported since the 1960s and the US hasn’t reported a case since the late 1920s. Experts also believe that some of the cases from the past may have been incorrectly diagnosed.

If, however, you are interested in how livestock getting sick with FMD affects humans you may want to consider the role that animals susceptible to FMD play in the economy. Cows and pigs for example are both significant sources of meat all over the world. When even a single case of FMD is discovered among livestock, the entire heard is often slaughtered to control the infection and prevent an outbreak. Trade is also impacted: sick animals cannot be legally sold, and the meat and milk of infected animals is not considered safe to eat as the virus can survive in smoked and cured meats along with insufficiently pasteurized milk. In the case of an epidemic, FMD can have a devastating effect on individuals and communities who rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods. It may also be important to note that a vaccine does exist to help prevent the outbreak of FMD among livestock, leading to safer sources of meat in many places.

If you think you may have been infected by FMD you may want to see a healthcare provider. Though FMD is not considered life threatening, reporting known cases is very important to the agricultural economy and required by law in many cases. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or by calling 212-305-3400.

Alice