TIME Archive: A Foot-and-Mouth Primer

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Until Tuesday, foot-and-mouth disease looked like a British problem.

That was before the French government confirmed a case of the highly contagious virus in the northeastern corner of the country, sending European financial markets and farmers into barely controlled hysteria. Roadblocks and embargoes were established, travelers were asked to disinfect their shoes, and thousands more animals were slaughtered and burned as French farmers scrambled to contain the devastating disease. Across the Atlantic, the United States' Agriculture Department banned imports of all livestock, fresh meat and unpasteurized dairy products from all 15 countries in the European Union. While some E.U. countries expressed surprise at what they term "drastic" action, the Agriculture Department sees the ban as a necessary precaution.

"There are some concerns that because of the way trade moves so freely within the E.U., suspect animals could be out there, even in countries where no clinical symptoms have manifested yet," USDA spokesman Jerry Redding told TIME.com. The USDA insists there is no need for undue concern among European nations concerned about their future as exporters. "This ban is temporary," Redding says. "We're going to see what develops, and if the disease doesn't pop up in new countries, we'll restructure the ban."

Here, in an attempt to clarify some of the most pressing questions about the disease, is a TIME.com Q&A:

What is foot-and-mouth disease?

Foot-and-mouth disease (also known as hoof-and-mouth) is a highly communicable, much-dreaded virus that affects mainly cows and pigs but can also strike sheep, goats and deer. Farmers live in fear of the disease because it spreads so quickly and containing it often requires the destruction of costly livestock.

What happens to an animal that gets the disease?

An animal with foot-and-mouth disease will develop a fever and blisterlike lesions on its tongue, lips and teats and between its hooves. Even if an animal recovers (and most do), the disease will dramatically reduce its ability to produce milk; in addition, the animal will grow more slowly, thus making it more expensive to bring to market as meat.

How is it spread?

The disease is highly mobile: It can be carried through the air, in animal by-products, on the dirt on people's shoes or on farm equipment. Foot-and-mouth thrives in dark, damp places, like barns, and can be destroyed with heat, sunlight and disinfectants. That's why pasteurized or cooked meats and dairy products are exempt from the U.S. ban.

Can people get foot-and-mouth disease?

It's possible, but extremely unlikely. And in the one documented case of human foot-and-mouth disease (diagnosed in 1966, in Britain), the symptoms were very mild and dissipated quickly.

If the disease isn't dangerous to people, and isn't even fatal in most animals, why is everyone panicked about its reemergence?

Foot-and-mouth isn't so much a health or safety threat — it's an economic threat. Farmers and governments alike are concerned about losing livestock that provide valuable milk and meat products. The USDA estimates an outbreak of foot-and-mouth in the U.S. — where the disease has not occurred since 1929 — could cost billions.

How are European countries treating the outbreak?

Authorities are slaughtering and then incinerating infected animals and ones suspected to have been in contact. In Britain, 120,000 animals have been destroyed, and there are plans to burn at least 50,000 more. French authorities have decided to burn some 50,000 sheep that have either been in contact with British animals or have been imported.

In addition, authorities have set up checkpoints and roadblocks, asking visitors to step in disinfectant and/or run their car wheels through a band of it in order to keep the disease from spreading.

Is incinerating animals the only way to deal with the disease?

During previous outbreaks in Eastern Europe, governments there chose to inoculate infected or exposed animals against foot-and-mouth. But, as critics point out, once an animal is inoculated, it's impossible to tell, without cutting-edge and rarely used tests, whether the animal is carrying the disease and is therefore highly contagious to other animals.