Britain?s foot and mouth epidemic may have been caused by a cloud of infected dust blown from the Sahara, according to scientists. They have linked the outbreak to a massive cloud of sand that swirled out of northern Africa several days before the disease was first reported.

Dr. Dale Griffin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, says, ?Satellite images show a dust cloud moving over the Atlantic and reaching Britain on February 13th. One week later, foot and mouth broke out in the UK. Given that the disease?s incubation period is seven days, that is one heck of a coincidence.?

?There is no sewage treatment or proper garbage disposal there, so the soil is heavily infected with microbes and feces,? says Dr. Eugene Shinn, also of the U.S. geological survey. ?Cattle there are also infected with the same viral strain, type O, that is causing foot and mouth in Britain.?

Storms frequently carry dust from the Sahara to Britain and the incidence of these dust storms is increasing, thanks to climate changes. For years, researchers assumed bacteria, viruses and fungi caught up in such clouds would be sterilized by the sun?s ultraviolet rays. But now scientists have discovered they may be protected from radiation by clinging to dust and sand particles.

Dr. Griffin and his team analyzed several dust clouds, and found a wide range of plant and human pathogens. These samples were obtained by making cultures. ?Only live organisms can generate cultures,? says Griffin, ?which shows we are dealing with microbes that are still infectious after their Atlantic crossing.?

The U.S. government has just issued an official warning about foot and mouth disease here in the United States.

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