WESTERN Australian beef exporters are on tenterhooks, after a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was detected in Indonesia two weeks ago.
More than 1200 cases of the highly contagious disease were confirmed in four provinces of East Java including Gresik, Lamongan, Sidoarjo and Mojokerto on Friday.
It is Indonesia's first time reporting FMD - which affects cattle, sheep, goat, pig, deer, camel and buffalo herds - since 1986.
While the disease is endemic in many South East Asian countries, Malaysia was the closest to Australia it had been before now.
The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) issued a statement on Monday, advising livestock industries to be alert.
DAWE said the risk to Australia remained low in the absence of close contact between animals or the importation of infected products.
WA Livestock Exporters Association chairman John Cunnington said if the disease was detected in Australia live trade would not only feel the impact, but the cattle industry as a whole.
Mr Cunnington said Australia had built a reputation on disease status, which allowed us to become a reputable supplier of livestock to the world.
"The impact is yet to be completely felt or understood as the news is very new," Mr Cunnington said.
"This has the potential to have a monumental impact on the trade and cattle industry as a whole.
"The Australian Government has been supportive of the Indonesian government through the lumpy skin disease (LSD) outbreak and we would expect them to continue offering such assistance with FMD."
Indonesia is Australia's biggest importer of live cattle exports with most recent data from Meat & Livestock Australia reporting 467,656 head were imported in 2020.
Imports were even higher again in 2019 with 679,538 head and 588,404 head in 2018.
In those years Indonesia became known as a "billion-dollar beef and cattle export market" for Australia for the first time.
Mr Cunnington said industry would work in conjunction with peak bodies, governments and trading partners to support and assist in dealing with the outbreak.
He said there was a common goal when it came to dealing with both FMD and LSD.
"We all want to ensure livestock production sectors of both countries can return to/maintain their disease status," he said.
"Indonesia has been Australia's largest cattle market for decades now and holds huge importance to the live Australian cattle trade.
"They are our partners and can be seen as an extension of Australia's northern cattle industry."
In a statement DAWE said awareness had been raised at the border - particularly in the north - and provided advice to State and Territory governments.
The department has also liaised with Indonesian counterparts and reviewed import permits for animal products from Indonesia that may carry FMD, suspending those of concern.
"Past preparations include establishment of an FMD vaccine bank in 2004 to ensure Australia has access to vaccines should they ever be required to respond to an outbreak," DAWE said.
A 'small' FMD outbreak - controlled in three months - has been estimated to cost Australia about $7.1 billion.
A large 12-month outbreak would cost $16b.
The impact of such outbreaks has been seen across the globe with an outbreak in 2001 costing the United Kingdom more than eight billion pounds - or $19b in Australian dollar terms - with more than 6m head of cattle and sheep destroyed.
More recently, the 2010-11 Korean outbreak is estimated to have cost the government some three trillion won ($3b).
ANIMALS WOULD BE LEFT SUFFERING
DETECTION of foot-and-mouth disease would have a disastrous impact on Australian agriculture and stop trade in its tracks.
Broome livestock veterinarian and bull semen analyst Tracy Sullivan said it would also leave animals suffering and result in necessary slaughter of those infected.
She said while mortality in adults was usually low to negligible, up to 50 per cent of calves may die if they were infected.
This would be due to heart involvement and complications such as secondary infection, exposure or malnutrition.
"The real story is about morbidity though - the number of animals infected," Dr Sullivan said.
"The highly contagious nature of FMD and the resultant impacts to milk and meat production threatens our food security, as it would severely impact on supplies of milk and meat in supermarkets."
So - with an outbreak right at our doorstep - would we be able to cope if an outbreak reached Australian shores?
Dr Sullivan said rapid containment of FMD required "very swift" detection and mobilisation of an effective response.
She said Australia's response to specific high-risk diseases was guided by the Australian veterinary emergency plans (AUSVETPLAN).
"The AUSVETPLAN for Lumpy Skin Disease was recently updated in response to the LSD detection in Indonesia and it is expected FMD AUSVETPLAN will follow suit," Dr Sullivan said.
"The Australian Cattle Veterinarians (ACV) - a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association - has been in discussions with government agencies to make sure they understand an effective response requires adequate vets rurally and that private veterinarians are upskilled and able to be rapidly deployed in an emergency animal disease response plan.
"The ability to efficiently track livestock movements will form a big part of the disease eradication plan and Australia needs to ensure that all FMD susceptible livestock species are individually identified and traceable."
But what exactly is FMD, how does it impact infected animals and how is it transmitted?
As most people are aware FMD is a highly contagious viral disease.
Dr Sullivan said the disease was so contagious it was capable of extremely rapid spread and could infect entire herds within 48 hours.
Early signs to look out for in animals include fever, drooling and a reluctance to move.
Blisters appear on the mouth, snout, tongue, lips or between and above the hooves on the feet.
These blisters rupture to expose raw, painful tissue, negatively impacting animal welfare and reducing production.
Dr Sullivan said the two main ways animals could become infected was by inhaling virus particles from the air or by ingesting food material containing virus particles.
Less virus particles are required for respiratory infection than oral infection.
"The method of transmission varies between species with cows and sheep are more likely to become infected by breathing in the virus whereas pigs are more likely to swallow the virus particles in their food," she said.
"The incubation period is normally two to five days (with a range of 1-14 days) and animals can start to excrete the virus two days before they show clinical signs making identification of infected animals difficult.
"Infected pigs breathe out 4000 times more virus particles than cattle and sheep, so pigs are real virus spreaders and managing our feral pig population is a really important factor in prevention and control strategies in Australia."
Virus particles can be transmitted through clothing, work boots, veterinarian equipment and vehicles, meaning onfarm biosecurity and vehicle washdown facilities are an "absolute critical" part of the response.
So are there any measures WA farmers can put in place onfarm to protect their herd?
Dr Sullivan said awareness and surveillance by farmers - from all animal sectors of agriculture - was critical for rapid detection.
She said it was important to report anything unusual.
"It is better to be safe than sorry and false alarms are important to national biosecurity as they serve to prove our freedom from disease," Dr Sullivan said.
"Farmers should work with their veterinarians to develop a considered biosecurity plan, implement required changes to their operation - and repeat new practices until they become routine.
"Australian cattle vets can help dairy and beef producers to tailor a plan to their individual enterprise."
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