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Impact of 1946 Mexican outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease detailed in recent article

As European farmers deal with the current outbreak of foot–and–mouth disease, a Texas historian has examined the effect of a 1946 Mexican occurrence of the virus.

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AUSTIN, Texas—As European farmers deal with the current outbreak of foot–and–mouth disease, a Texas historian has examined the effect of a 1946 Mexican occurrence of the virus.

According to Dr. John Ledbetter’s article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, "the highly contagious malady threatened to spread north through Texas and cripple a fundamental United States industry," just as today’s European outbreak imperils farmers, ranchers, meat packers and food retailers.

Ledbetter holds a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin and serves as adjunct professor at UT Arlington. He explores the social and political ramifications of the virus outbreak in his recent Quarterly article published by the Texas State Historical Association. The TSHA is located at UT Austin.

In "Fighting Foot-And-Mouth Disease in Mexico: Popular Protest Against Diplomatic Decisions," Ledbetter discusses the U.S. and Mexican governmental response to eradicate the disease by destroying a large proportion of animals in infected regions. The U.S. had eliminated the disease in the 1930’s and officials were willing to offer financial and technical aid to assist Mexico with similar dramatic measures.

The article includes photographs that vividly portray the drastic means carried out to eradicate the disease. Poor, rural Mexicans reacted to this drastic approach through protest, which at times became violent, Ledbetter said. "Leaders of both nations began to fear broad unrest and to worry that conflict would endanger security, trade, investment and even the stability of a post-war world thought threatened by Communism. Within a year, Mexican and American leadership changed tactics and began to vaccinate — not kill — healthy cattle, oxen, goats, sheep and hogs in the infected center of the country, over intense U.S. industry opposition."

The slower and more costly method did not eradicate the disease until 1953.

In an irony of history, poor Mexican farmers and ranchers faced down their authoritarian government and its superpower neighbor to protect their livelihood as they knew best, said Ledbetter. "Foot-and-mouth set off a cataclysm of hunger, financial ruin and rebellion in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s," he said. "We can only speculate on the effect of an outbreak in the United States today, but in California in the 1920s, counties and states placed embargo and counter-restriction on movement of goods and people.

"In a world linked by jets and constant travel, the threat of international contagion may now be greater, and certainly we depend more on fewer sources of meat. The virulent nature of the disease would allow it to infect one of today’s huge feed yards or hog farms almost overnight. In the face of this threat, we have already seen efforts of ranchers and hog farmers in the U.S. to isolate themselves and to limit tourism."

According to Ledbetter, "the Mexican case shows the great difficult of making effective policy and diplomatic decisions when some are losing their livelihood and many more are threatened."

To order a copy of the January 2001 Southwestern Historical Quarterly call the TSHA) at 1-800-687-8132. The TSHA has been preserving and sharing the rich history of Texas through publications and programs since 1897.