PARIS — France and Belgium reported their first suspected cases of foot-and-mouth disease Saturday, stoking fears that the contagion that broke out in Britain last month might have spread to continental Europe.
As Britain shut down much of its countryside for the weekend in an effort to contain the spread of the infection, officials in Europe said the chances that their own livestock would be spared were slim.
"If we do nothing, it will spread across our country fast. My specialists are convinced," French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner told Journal du Dimanche weekly. "If it doesn't reach France, we can consider it a real miracle."
The suspected case in France concerned several sheep from a flock of 80 at a farm in Roche-la-Moliere, southwest of Lyons. A veterinary official said initial tests were negative. Results of additional tests were expected Monday.
Police sealed off the farm with protective barriers. It was not immediately clear whether the sheep had contact with British livestock.
Belgium's Agriculture Ministry announced that it was investigating a suspected case at a pig farm in Diksmuide, near the French border and the North Sea. Authorities created a 12-mile buffer zone around the suspect farm.
The ministry said initial tests were negative. But Agriculture Minister Jaak Gabriels ordered a nationwide ban on the transport of live farm animals.
A ministry spokesman, speaking on RTBF radio, said definitive test results would not be ready for three days. The initial tests were carried out on three pigs that were imported from Britain.
Foot-and-mouth disease can spread quickly among cloven-footed animals such as sheep, pigs and cattle. It is not harmful to humans but causes blisters on the hooves and mouths of animals, followed by severe weight loss.
It can be passed between animals or carried by wind, clothing or vehicles, fueling concern in Europe that it will spread from Britain across the English Channel. No cases have yet been confirmed in continental Europe.
Baerbel Hoehn, environment minister in North Rhine-Westphalia--the first state in Germany to start precautionary culls--said she doubted that the nation can avoid the disease.
"We must realize that foot-and-mouth is getting closer all the time. And because of that, we have to be ready for a situation where we will be unable to stop it being brought into Germany," Hoehn told Germany's ZDF television.