Australia at greater risk of foot and mouth disease after Bali outbreak

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
A worker in protective clothing gives directions as a dead cow is loaded into a truck during a 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK.
Camera IconA worker in protective clothing gives directions as a dead cow is loaded into a truck during a 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

The risk of foot and mouth disease reaching Australia within the next six months is now “extremely high”, a leading veterinarian warns, with authorities confirming FMD has spread to Bali.

The Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry confirmed on Tuesday the highly infectious livestock disease had reached the tourist hotspot — a day after reports emerged from Indonesia.

“Indonesia authorities have today confirmed an outbreak of FMD of livestock in Bali,” the department said in a statement.

“At the time of reporting there are 63 cases in Bali and movement restrictions have been implemented by Indonesian authorities.

“Australia is free from FMD.”

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, all the Bali FMD cases were detected in cows at three locations around the Island on Friday.

It comes as hordes of West Australians descended on Bali this week as winter school holidays began in WA.

Restrictions have been imposed to prevent the movement of livestock outside of Bali according to DAFF, with Indonesian media reporting Balinese authorities had began culling diseased cattle.

With increasing numbers of Australians visiting Bali, Indonesian-based veterinarian Ross Ainsworth said the risk of transmission to Australia was heightened.

“In my opinion, the risk (of transmission of FMD from Indonesia to Australia) is extremely high over the next one to six months,” Dr Ainsworth wrote in the Southeast Asian Beef Market Report.

A cow with foot and mouth disease in Nepal. Excessive drooling is a common symptom.
Camera IconA cow with foot and mouth disease in Nepal. Excessive drooling is a common symptom. Credit: Supplied/RegionalHUB

FMD was detected among cattle in East Java in early May and has now spread to 22 Indonesian provinces including Bali.

The latest infections bring Indonesia’s total to more than 230,000 confirmed cases.

Dr Ainsworth, who has 40 years experience in the Australian beef industry, said FMD was among the most contagious of all animal diseases.

He said the limited quantities of vaccine available to protect Indonesian livestock, and the “large numbers” of pigs and more than 600,000 head of cattle spread across Bali, also created a “more immediate” threat of transmission to Australia.

“Infected animals excrete virus into the air and through all secretions, including saliva,” Dr Ainsworth said.

“Pigs are multipliers of the virus as they excrete up to 3000 times more virus into the environment than ruminants.”

Australia has a large feral pig population, which some experts including national feral pig management co-ordinator Heather Channon believe could potentially exacerbate an outbreak.

Others believe feral pigs would probably not play a major role in the spread of FMD in Australia, due to climatic conditions, the capacity of the virus to survive outside the host for long periods, and the density and size of feral pig populations.

Some industry players, including Global AgriTrends analyst Simon Quilty, have called for Australians to be banned from visiting Indonesia while FMD continues to run rampant.

A UK government official cleans up to ensure no foot and mouth virus is passed on during a 2001 outbreak.
Camera IconA UK government official cleans up to ensure no foot and mouth virus is passed on during a 2001 outbreak. Credit: Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Dr Ainsworth said there was no need for this but stricter protocols should be implemented.

“Until Bali is fully protected by vaccination of its cattle and pig populations, an increase in the attention paid to tourists returning to Australia, especially their footwear, seems to be warranted,” he said.

“Travelers are already used to a multitude of annoying COVID interventions.

“Additional requirements such as ensuring shoes are clean and walking through a wet sponge infused with disinfectant before boarding and after leaving the flight would seem to be simple and sensible measures which might help to address the new level of risk.”

A DAFF spokesperson told Countryman there were strict biosecurity protocols in place for all travellers returning from countries affected by FMD.

“Frontline biosecurity officers are operating with increased vigilance across all flights arriving from Indonesia,” the spokesperson said.

“This includes enhanced questioning of passengers in the baggage hall regarding FMD risk items they may be carrying.”

DAFF said Australia had strict biosecurity protocols in place to prevent high risk materials — such as contaminated equipment or clothing and animal products — being brought in by travellers who may have been exposed to diseased animals.

“These same biosecurity checks are in place for all travellers from Indonesia,” the statement said.

“Response activities currently underway also include enhanced targeted communication material (distributed both on and offshore), and profiling and inspecting passengers and mail users.”

The Australian Government would continue to work with Indonesia to provide support where requested.

“Australia undertakes extensive planning and preparedness activities to ensure that should an incursion (sic) occur, the disease can be contained and controlled as quickly as possible,” DAFF said.

“Australia maintains an FMD vaccine bank internationally and vaccine is available for use if there is an incursion in Australia.”

Vaccination has begun in infected provinces according to DAWE.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt will visit Indonesia this month as Australia helps to contain the spread of FMD and lumpy skin disease.

Australia’s last recorded case of FMD was in 1872, with recent modelling by the Federal Government’s commodity forecaster ABARES estimating an outbreak would cause revenue losses of $80 billion over 10 years.

Indonesia had been FMD-free since 1986, providing a buffer zone to mainland Asia where the disease has been endemic for centuries.

“Outbreaks in Asia are relatively common, certainly in the order of several per year, but the disease tends not to be a major problem for these countries as they are largely protected by highly effective vaccination programs,” Dr Ainsworth said.

“None of these countries export meat, so their industries are generally not significantly impacted.”

FMD affects cloven-hoofed species including sheep, goats, buffalo, camels and deer. It can be spread from animal to animal and by contaminated vehicles and equipment.

Symptoms include fever, depression, reduced appetite, increased salivation and lameness.

Livestock exhibiting symptoms should be reported to the national Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

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