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Foot and mouth disease may spread through shedding skin cells

LIVERMORE, Calif. --Skin cells shed from livestock infected with foot and mouth disease could very well spread the disease.

In a new paper appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist Michael Dillon proposed that virus-infected skin cells could be a source of infectious foot and mouth disease virus aerosols. His proposal is based on the facts that foot and mouth disease virus is found in skin and that airborne skin cells are known to transmit other diseases.

The proposal could lead to new methods for surveillance for foot and mouth disease (as in settled dust), the development of more effective control measures, and improved studies of the persistence of the disease in the environment. The research also may be applicable to how other infectious diseases are spread.

Foot and mouth is a highly contagious viral disease capable of causing widespread epidemics in livestock. The foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) has multiple known routes of transmission. These include direct contact (animal-to-animal contact at mucous membranes, cuts or abrasions), indirect contact (such as contaminated bedding), ingestion (contaminated feed) and the respiratory or airborne pathway (inhalation of infectious aerosols).

"The airborne pathway may play a role in some outbreaks by causing disease 'sparks' (disease spread to regions remote from a primary infection site)," Dillon said. "If the disease isn't detected quickly, these 'sparks' can lead to major outbreaks."

Dillon cited the widespread dissemination of FMDV during the catastrophic 2001 United Kingdom outbreak, which is thought to be caused by the inadvertent transport of animals with unrecognized FMDV infection from a Prestwick area farm to areas previously free of FMDV.

Mammals actively shed skin cells into the environment. Skin cells comprise a significant fraction (1 percent to 10 percent) of measured indoor and outdoor aerosols and indoor dust. These cells; and the bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses known to be present on the surface of (or in some cases inside) skin cells; can become airborne by being shed directly into the air or when dust is disturbed.

"Infectious material can become airborne on skin cells and cause infection when inhaled or deposited directly onto the skin of the new host," Dillon said. "This is believed to be a significant source of bacterial infection for surgical procedures and other infections that are a result of treatment in a hospital."

"While not a typical site for the initial FMDV infection, the skin is a major viral replication site in most animals," Dillon said. "The outermost layer of FMDV-infected skin needs to be analyzed to find out how stable the virus is in these skin cells."

Dillon's proposal suggests a number of practical possibilities for FMDV surveillance and control:

  • The sampling and management of settled dust could prove to be a useful tool for disease surveillance and control.
  • Slaughtered animals may emit airborne FMDV via infected skin cells simply by exposure to wind and/or mechanical abrasion (e.g. moving animal carcasses, spraying hides with water).
  • Airborne emissions from cattle and sheep may need to be revisited as infected skin cells trapped in hair may later become airborne (currently these animals are believed to contribute little to aerosol emissions relative to swine).

"Given the potential for skin cells to protect infectious virus from the environment, the management of other viral diseases may also benefit from enhanced dust surveillance and management, and skin decontamination," Dillon said.


Contact: Anne Stark
DOE/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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