Foot-and-mouth disease: how dirty flip-flops can cause disaster in Australia

But Australian officials are increasingly worried about what they will bring home and are considering advising travelers to leave their flip-flops, known in Australia as thongs, in Bali.

Foot and mouth disease is spreading rapidly among cattle in Indonesia, and on Tuesday the first cases were confirmed in Bali, a popular tourist destination with direct flights to seven Australian cities.

“FMD would be a disaster if it arrived in Australia,” said the country’s chief veterinarian, Mark Shipp, who advises the government on ways to protect against the virus.

Foot-and-mouth disease is harmless to humans, but causes painful blisters and lesions on the mouths and legs of artiodactyl animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and camels, preventing them from eating and in some cases causing severe lameness and death.

The disease is considered the biggest biosecurity threat to Australian livestock and an outbreak could lead to mass culling of infected animals and shutting down Australia’s lucrative beef export market for years to come.

“The impact of FMD on farmers is so unbearable that it is unimaginable,” said Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers Federation. “But it’s not just the farmers. Wiping $80 billion out of Australia’s GDP would be an economic disaster for everyone.”

Australia has begun stepping up biosecurity measures at airports, screening luggage for meat and cheese products and warning tourists that dirt on their shoes could inadvertently trigger Australia’s first FMD outbreak in 150 years.

But one form of combat that hasn’t yet been implemented is foot baths, containers of powerful chemicals that newcomers step into to eradicate the disease they may be wearing on their shoes. The problem is that the shoes commonly worn in laid-back Bali are inconsistent with standard biosecurity measures.

“A lot of people coming back from Bali don’t wear boots, they wear flip flops, thongs or sandals, and you can’t afford to put this chemical on your skin,” Shipp said.

He said officials are considering asking tourists to waive their shoes.

“Not wearing shoes at all or leaving shoes at home,” Shipp said. “If you wear thongs in Bali, leave them in Bali.”

He added that this advice has not yet become an official instruction and is one of several options being considered.

International travelers at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia on March 7, 2022.

Outbreak in Indonesia

Foot-and-mouth disease is already spreading rapidly in Indonesia, where the first cases of the disease were identified in April. By May, Indonesian authorities had warned Australia, which, along with New Zealand, Central and North America and continental Western Europe – free from foot-and-mouth disease.
Indonesia tried to roll out a vaccination program, but by June 27, only 58,275 of the country’s estimated population of 17 million had been vaccinated. This was announced by the Minister of Agriculture Syahrul Yassin Limpo on Twitter.

Shipp said the slow rollout reflects logistical challenges in a decentralized nation made up of thousands of islands.

“The vaccine may be available at the national level, but it must reach the provincial and district levels. And then, when it gets there, the question arises, how are we going to transfer it to animals? yards. We cannot catch cattle. We don’t have money for gas. We don’t have money to compensate for meals,” he said.

“That’s the type of logistical challenge we’ve been trying to work through with them.”

The timing of the outbreak in Indonesia was disastrous, weeks before Idul Adha, the “holiday of sacrifice,” when animals are typically sold in large numbers for slaughter over a three-day period starting July 10. they sacrifice livestock and distribute meat to the poor.

An animal health center employee examines a cow in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia May 17, 2022.

Mike Tyldesley, an infectious disease modeling expert at the University of Warwick, told CNN it’s not the slaughter that dramatically raises the risk of infection, but “the significant movement of animals in the run-up to festivals.”

“We see this in Turkey – every year there is a festival (where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic) called Kurban, which also involves the slaughter of a significant number of livestock, preceded by a massive movement of livestock around the country, and an increase in the number of reported cases of foot-and-mouth disease is usually observed, when it happens,” he told CNN in an email.

“Transmission of the virus through contact with carcasses is also possible, especially in the first few hours after slaughter, so the disposal of potentially infected carcasses must be handled with great care,” he said.

By July 7, the outbreak in Indonesia had affected more than 330,000 animals across 21 provinces, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Thousands more doses of the vaccine arrived from France, and more than 350,000 animals were immunized.

The fine line between disease and vaccination

When foot-and-mouth disease was found in sheep in 2001 in the United Kingdom, the results were devastating. At the time, government contingency plans included infecting 10 houses, according to the government report.

Instead, the disease spread to 57 locations before it was discovered, and then a lack of coordination slowed the rollout of emergency vaccinations. Over 6 million animals were killed in the seven months that they tried to eradicate the virus.

The following year, the UK was re-listed as FMD-free, but the impact was not limited to trade.

The report said that “Tourism has been hit the hardest by the outbreak financially, as visitors to Britain and the countryside were put off by the initial total closure of footpaths by local authorities and media depictions of mass bonfires.”

The entire episode cost the government and the private sector a total of £8 billion ($9.5 billion).

Cattle and sheep are burned at the stake on a farm in Lockerbie, Scotland during the UK foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

Other countries have learned from the UK’s response and, as a rule, if an outbreak is detected, a ban on movement is imposed until the animals are slaughtered and decontaminated.

For Australia, vaccination of animals is possible only after the virus has entered because its trading partners do not distinguish between a vaccinated and a sick animal.

“If we did preventive vaccination, we would lose our FMD free status and lose our trade and market access,” Shipp said.

Ross Ainsworth, a 40-year-old veterinarian based in Bali, says it’s too easy for tourists on the island to come into contact with livestock and bring the virus home.

“There are cattle everywhere and those cattle will get infected and spread the virus,” he said. The virus can stay alive for days on the soles of shoes, or a little longer if it’s colder outside, he said.

Cows roam the streets near tourist villas in Seminyak, a coastal town in southern Bali, on June 6, 2022.

“So if you walked out of your villa and stepped on contaminated saliva, got into a taxi and flew home, you potentially have another day and a half of viable virus on your foot,” he said.

The National Farmers’ Federation has welcomed increased biosecurity controls but says the government should “constantly review” security settings and possibly subject all arrivals from high-risk areas to biosecurity screening.

“Each person should at least be questioned by a biosecurity officer, unless subjected to a background check,” said Simson, president of the NFF. “We also need to keep looking at shoe disinfection stations as an option,” she said.

“Whatever it takes. We don’t want to look back and regret not doing more.”

Until potentially contaminated shoes are thrown away or footbaths are made mandatory, Shipp says education is the best defense. Advertising campaigns are being run at airports and on social media, but Shipp said that doesn’t mean tourists need to stay away from cows.

“Seeing cattle in Bali is part of the experience,” he said. “But it’s very easy to wash your hands and make sure your boots are clean before you get home.”

Masroor Jamaluddin contributed reporting.