The UK's foot and mouth disease epidemic in 2001 has been described as the most serious event ever to occur in a country previously free of the disease. Between 6.5 million and 10 million animals were slaughtered across the UK and the disaster caused widespread disruption and closure of much of the British countryside for more than a year.
But because the epidemic was treated as an animal problem, little is known about the human cost of the disaster.
Researchers from Lancaster University Institute for Health Research recruited a panel of 54 individuals, representing a wide range of rural workers and residents. Over a period of 18 months, panel members wrote more than 3,000 weekly diaries which were analysed along with in-depth interviews and participated in group discussions to capture evidence about the impact of the disaster and processes of recovery.
Their reports showed that life after the foot and mouth epidemic was accompanied by distress, feelings of bereavement, fear of a new disaster, loss of trust in authority and a sense that the value of local knowledge had been undermined.
Distress was experienced well beyond the farming community. In the aftermath of the disaster, health and social problems included flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrollable emotion, conflict within communities and increased social isolation. In the longer term, there was evidence of stress, anxieties about emissions from disposal sites, loss of confidence in authority, confusion, bitterness and increased fear of unemployment. Many of these effects continued to feature in the diaries throughout the 18 month period.
But the team also found that suffering was alleviated by trusted informal and formal support networks. This implies that statutory and voluntary organisations have a more complex and enduring role after a disaster than has been understood.
They argue for more flexibility in disaster planning, rather than the creation of new bodies or more targets and protocols. "People who have experienced a disaster may not be sick as a result, but they need careful and appropriate support to rebuild their lives and regain confidence," they say.
They recommend joint service reviews of what counts as a disaster, regular sharing of intelligence, debriefing and peer support for front line workers, increased community involvement in disaster management, and wider more flexible access to regeneration funding and rural health outreach work.