Foot and mouth disease on our doorstep
Australian vets in Indonesia help to contain a FMD outbreak affecting 200,000 cattle,
calls to ban Bali holidays.
by Clint Jasper, ABC
In the winter of 2001, acrid plumes of smoke rose from the British countryside as millions of cows, sheep and pigs were incinerated in a desperate war against foot-and-mouth disease.
As authorities scrambled to contain the devastating outbreak, people’s movements were restricted and rural areas became no-go zones for city dwellers.
International trade in UK livestock meat and dairy products was suspended, a general election was delayed for the first time since World War II and major events in the countryside were cancelled.
The disease swung a wrecking ball through the UK economy, costing it around $13 billion and the loss of more than 6 million animals.
Australia has been free of the viral disease since the late 1800s, but it remains the livestock industry’s most feared — and potentially most costly — biosecurity threat.
Now the recent discovery of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Indonesian cattle has the livestock industry on high alert, with Australian vets working tirelessly to help Indonesian authorities try to contain the outbreak.
But some producers have raised concerns about how Australia will cope if the highly contagious disease gets a foothold here, warning every household in the country would be affected.
An outbreak here would shut down Australia’s meat export industry for at least one year, instantly wiping off $25 billion of export value, according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.
Studies have estimated $50 billion in economic losses over 10 years if a medium-to-large-scale FMD outbreak were to occur in Australia.
Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp, said the national impact of an outbreak would be devastating.
“If foot-and-mouth disease were to enter anywhere in Australia, all of Australia’s market access for all products of beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, goats and pigs would be lost,” he said.
“It would be suspended initially, because we would not be able to meet the certification requirements of our trading partners.”
Dr Schipp recently summed up how devastating a local outbreak would be when he told Landline:
“Foot-and-mouth disease is the most frightening animal agriculture biosecurity threat to Australia.
“And for that reason, we’ve been preparing for this eventuality for many years.”
Every household would be affected
The effects of an outbreak in Australia would be felt across industries, from the cities to the regions, in every household in the country.
In 2002, a Productivity Commission report on the impact of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak found consumers would change their eating habits and turn away from domestic red meat.
“The volume of meat products consumed [with the exception of chicken meat] is initially likely to fall,” it said.
In regional communities, authorities expect significant social disruption and major mental health issues.
“At the individual and family level, the social impacts could range from emotional strains on family relationships to severe mental disorders,” according to Agriculture Victoria.
“Normal community activities may be affected by movement and biosecurity restriction and longer-term community cohesion may be impacted.”
What is foot-and-mouth disease?
Foot-and-mouth disease does not pose a risk to human health, and it is a different virus from hand, foot and mouth disease, which can easily spread among children.
People can become infected with FMD, but only under “extremely rare” circumstances, and they would only experience mild symptoms, including blisters and a fever, according to the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Livestock infected with the disease develop blisters around their noses, mouths and on their hooves, and while many animals recover from the sickness, their productivity can decline.
FMD spreads between animals on their breath, through contact with the blisters, and via infected milk, semen, faeces and urine.
However, the virus can also live on vehicle tyres, clothing and footwear, which is why concerns have been raised about travellers returning from parts of Indonesia to Australia recently.
The CSIRO’s group leader in disease mitigation technologies in health and biosecurity, Wilna Vosloo, said biosecurity authorities had to keep a constant eye on how the virus was mutating.
“Foot-and-mouth disease has seven different serotypes, and each serotype can be seen as a separate foot-and-mouth disease, and each of those can have different variants,” Dr Vosloo said. P/2