What is foot-and-mouth disease and why Australia should be concerned

Foot-and-mouth disease wreaks havoc on livestock in Indonesia, and there is real concern that it could infect animals in Australia, potentially destroying the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and driving meat prices skyrocketing.

That’s the problem, the federal government is spending millions of dollars to fight the disease in Indonesia so it doesn’t reach our shores. And Australians are being encouraged to throw away shoes they have worn in Indonesia before boarding a flight to reduce the risk of contaminated soil returning home.

What is foot-and-mouth disease?

Foot and mouth disease, known as FMD, is a virus that causes severe blisters and lesions on the mouths and feet of artiodactyl animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats. The symptoms prevent them from eating and can cause lameness and, in some cases, death.

Although it does not pose a risk to human health, humans are often carriers of the disease. They most commonly spread it through shoes, clothing, or through the nose, where it can persist for up to 24 hours.

Cows in the barn

A man inspects livestock in Lampung Province, Indonesia. Source: AFP / PERDIANSYAKH/AFP via Getty Images

Australia’s chief veterinarian, Dr Mark Shipp, told SBS News that this could be “devastating”.

“FMD is a virus that is highly contagious and spreads easily between many animals,” he said. “This is worrisome in terms of impact on trade as any country that has this disease is pretty much unable to export its animals and animal products.”

Why is Australia concerned?

FMD is spreading rapidly across Indonesia, which has been free of the disease for 37 years so far. More than 330,000 animals are estimated to have been infected in 21 provinces, most recently on the popular tourist island of Bali, the closest to Australia in more than a century.

On Wednesday, an Australian delegation of Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt and Dr. Shipp arrived in Indonesia to assess the situation, and on Friday, Senator Watt announced that the government would spend $14 million to fight the disease.

A man, a woman and two children stand on a farm

Farming family Malach and Ken Gray and their children.

The funding includes $5 million to support laboratory capacity building and diagnostic testing in Indonesia, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea, and to support field efforts in Indonesia and provide epidemiological data to model the likely spread of the virus in Indonesia and the region. Senator Watt said.

Another $9 million will go towards 18 new biosecurity officers to be deployed at Australian airports and postal centres, as well as detection dogs in Cairns and Darwin. Funding will also go to a new coordinator in Northern Australia who will manage surveillance and preparedness strategies in the region.

What should I do if I am returning from Indonesia?

With more than 100 flights to and from Bali a week, industry leaders, politicians and farmers are concerned that foot-and-mouth disease could spread before Indonesia gets it under control.
“We are very concerned that tourists returning from Bali may bring contaminated soil on their shoes or bring in contaminated animal products such as meat or dairy products,” Dr. Shipp said.
Australia has begun to step up biosecurity measures at airports across the country. Educational videos are shown on flights arriving from Indonesia, warning tourists that dirt on their shoes or clothing can inadvertently spread the disease.

Travelers are also being reminded to declare any items they think may be contaminated to avoid hefty fines. The number of biosecurity officers and detection dogs has also been increased.

Senator Watt said on Friday that the government is now in the process of risk profiling passengers returning from Indonesia.
“If any of these passengers fit the risk profile…then those passengers are screened and go through…interrogated, shoes shined, baggage checked, detection dogs used,” he said.

“If someone returns to the country and claims to have had contact with the dam or livestock, or they have grain, meat products or any other normal things that you must declare, then these passengers are also checked.”

Do I really need to throw away my thong?

The federal government previously announced that it would provide $1.5 million to fund at least one million doses for an FMD vaccination program in Indonesia.
“While travelers returning from Indonesia pay great attention … the most dangerous route for foot-and-mouth disease to return to our country is through animal products, meat and dairy products,” said Senator Watt.

But some are urging returning travelers to ditch shoes entirely.

NSW Deputy Prime Minister Paul Toole said it was the surest way to prevent the spread of the disease.
“For those returning, it might be as easy as throwing those thongs away and getting a new pair of shoes when they arrive,” Mr. Toole said.
“You don’t want to be the person who brings FMD back to Australia.”

The National Farmers’ Federation supported this call by promoting the slogan “Drop your thong” on social media. It also spurred traffic by offering a 30 percent discount on another pair if travelers are filmed throwing their shoes.

What are foot baths and why aren’t they used in Australia?

One way to control FMD that is commonly used on farms and abroad to prevent the spread of FMD is foot baths. These are buckets of chemicals that arriving travelers step into to destroy any potential traces of disease they may be carrying.
Mala Grey, a farmer from Kiama in New South Wales, thinks they can be useful.
“I was really surprised they didn’t start with foot baths, I thought that would be a great first step,” she said.

“I’m glad to see there are serious discussions going on and I would like to see the policy really fast to keep Australia FMD free.”

Shadow Agriculture Secretary David Littleproud also criticized the federal government for not implementing foot baths.
“Unfortunately, there is still a large group of people who don’t claim or falsely claim that it won’t make a difference, so you need to make sure you supplement and complement that with foot baths,” Mr. Littleproud said.
But Dr. Shipp said that while the government considered this option, it would ultimately be impractical at airports.

“We know that many people returning from Bali don’t have closed shoes, or if they do, it’s ugg boots or slippers that will absorb a lot of foot bath chemicals, and those chemicals are pretty harsh.”

What could this mean if he ends up in Australia?

If the virus does cross Australian borders, farmers across the country could be forced to cull their herds, domestic trade would be restricted and entire farms closed.
“We would have had to close immediately, no people, no vehicles, no one on the farm,” Ms Gray said.
“In addition, the long-term consequences of animal infection will be considered. It would be destructive; our entire business would be wiped off the face of the earth.”

Any presence of FMD in the country also immediately puts an end to all international exports. Considering that 70 percent of Australian agricultural products are exported, the estimated cost of the FMD outbreak is $80 billion. Once a country is found to be infected with FMD, it takes several years before trade can resume.

For small farmers like Ms. Grey, this would mean the end of a decades-long business.
“We have been farming this site for 160 years and an outbreak like FMD will end that legacy,” she said.
Nowra veterinarian Andrew Khawajia said the outbreak would be “catastrophic”, noting it could take some time to eradicate the disease, especially if it enters Australia’s wild populations, including deer, camels and pigs.

“The biggest problem in Australia is that it’s big and we have a lot of wild animals and if they get into these populations we might not even be able to get rid of them and that’s our biggest fear,” he said. he.

What happened in the UK?

By the time FMD was discovered in the UK in 2001, the disease had already spread to more than 50 locations and the results were devastating. International trade in British meat and dairy products has been suspended and major events, including a general election, have been canceled to stem the spread.

The disease wiped out the economy, costing an estimated $13 billion. In the seven months it took to eradicate the virus, more than six million sheep and cattle had to be killed.

Fire on agricultural land

More than six million sheep and cattle have been slaughtered in the UK to control foot-and-mouth disease. Credit: Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

The National Farmers Union of Great Britain said that most farmers are still concerned about the events of twenty years ago.

The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 was devastating to British livestock and sheep farmers and will never be forgotten by those who survived it.

How important is this for farmers?

Sixth-generation farmer Daniel Cochrane said a potential FMD outbreak would be traumatic.
“It’s hard enough when one cow dies,” he said.

“Culling entire herds would be heartbreaking.”

A man stands in a field

Daniel Cochrane says he would probably sell his dairy farm in New South Wales if foot-and-mouth disease took over his property. Source: SBS news / Amelia Dunn

He and his brothers own several dairy farms in Nowra on the south coast of New South Wales, and their operations have survived drought, fire and flood.

“Many of us are already on the brink in terms of mental health, and financially, many people are already suffering,” he said.
“If there was foot-and-mouth disease, you would probably see this farm in the market.

“I couldn’t do it. I would have gone out. I think I would have sold the farm.”

“We need people traveling to take this seriously,” said Senator Watt.
“If foot-and-mouth disease enters our country, it will be a devastating blow to our agriculture, especially livestock.”

– with AARP