FOOT and mouth disease (FMD) cast a shadow over almost a year of Western Australian veterinarian Ben Madin's life.
Dr Madin is the managing director of Ausvet - an epidemiology company with extensive experience in disease investigation, control programs and the development of information systems.
In the United Kingdom's 2001 outbreak, he spent 11 months containing, culling and cleaning up livestock - both infected and often in neighbouring herds.
For the first six months and at the peak of the outbreak,
Dr Madin worked more than 12 hours a day and up to seven days a week.
Veterinarians serving on the frontline were kitted up in thick rubber suits and disinfectant was onsite for high pressure spray downs upon departure.
Once they had visited an infected property they were considered 'dirty' for up to five days, in which time they could not visit farms free of disease, to reduce the risk of spread.
"Big covered, coal trucks would ship away dead animals, once they had been culled by a slaughter team or veterinary input," Dr Madin said.
"Some days you would slaughter a beautiful herd of milking cows and when it was all over you would go home feeling absolutely devastated.
"The impact on people's livelihoods at a personal level is really easy to underestimate, but vital to helping manage the social and mental health impacts."
Contact trace cattle
At the time vaccination was considered unfeasible.
This was because technology had not been developed to determine whether or not an animal - which tested positive - was infected or vaccinated.
In order for trade to resume every single animal had to test negative.
As a result, a contentious decision was made - the fastest way to regain FMD-free status was through slaughter and a contiguous cull policy.
In contrast, the Netherlands opted to vaccinate first, then slaughter all vaccinated animals over a longer timeframe.
The United Kingdom policy meant animals on an affected farm were killed and also those on neighbouring farms.
"By the time you found a property had infection, the neighbours were possibly already infected," Dr Madin said.
"But if you could reach a property that was largely infected before there were any critical signs, then you could get ahead of it.
"The contiguous cull policy meant instead of culling the 2500 infected properties, they ended up culling close to 8000 to 9000.
"We had to get in there before it spread and we had to go in quite hard," Dr Madin said.
What made containing the spread even more difficult was the British Cattle Movement System (BCMS) and a lack of capacity to trace livestock efficiently.
At the time of the outbreak, the system was six months behind on data entry and by the end it was drawn out to two years.
"Every time you slaughtered at a farm, you had to collect all the passports, go through and put a note on every page that they had been slaughtered," Dr Madin said.
"Once marked, the passports were collected into big bags, disinfected and put into a container to send to the office to be processed.
"If National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) data is up-to-date, Australia would be streaks ahead in containing an outbreak."
Dr Madin said one of the biggest threats to Australia was delayed reporting or people failing to notify their livestock movements in a proper, appropriate and timely manner.
He said livestock traceability was not an option and while people were technically given seven days - this was a longtime in a virus life cycle.
"By stopping movement and isolating animals the disease could be controlled," Dr Madin said.
"If this is not done, there is no hope, no matter how much of the vaccine is distributed."
Close off and keep out
Disease management concepts - known as zoning and compartmentalisation - could prove critical if the disease was to reach WA.
Dr Madin said disease zones could be created and movement stopped between regions.
Similarly to COVID, he said WA was in a position to zone out entire regions - for example the Kimberley - through border closures.
How effective this concept was, however, fell back to that rapid reporting and vigilance with livestock.
"If made aware, a farm boundary could be locked down and we could start vaccinating in rings around the farm," Dr Madin said.
"We could then create buffer zones to reduce the spread and start proactive testing.
"Whereas, if FMD was on a farm for a week or 10 days it may have already spread to the neighbouring property.
"That property could have sold cattle, sheep or pigs, or moved them into another location for growing and then spread the disease even further without even realising."
In the UK, areas surrounding an infected property were visited after three weeks and neighbouring properties - which hadn't been culled or de-populated - were tested.
This was done out to a three kilometre radius.
Once properties tested negative, they moved into the next phase of preparation known as a freedom campaign or program.
Dr Madin said if a positive case was reported on the property the entire mob would need to be sampled.
Limited resources in staff and isolation periods made this difficult.
"It was one thing to have a vet supervising slaughter at one farm, but it was another to do 50 farms when your team had become essentially 'dirty'," Dr Madin said.
"This often depleted entire workforces."
To jab or not to jab
Rapid access to advanced vaccines has been an important and revolutionary change in FMD since Dr Madin's 2001 experience.
The National FMD vaccine bank has been arranged with vaccine manufacturers, as part of Australia's response plan.
Dr Madin said modern vaccines were constructed in a way which allowed vaccinated animals to be differentiated from naturally infected animals.
As a result, he said wide scale livestock slaughter - to every vaccinated animal - would no longer be necessary.
However, there was one problem - vaccination would strip Australia of its FMD-free without vaccination status.
Under existing trade rules, vaccinated animals may be viewed less favourably by some markets.
Dr Madin said steps would need to be undertaken to regain the free without vaccination status and zoning could be used to achieve this.
"For example, if WA was made a FMD-free zone then vaccination could be stopped here," Dr Madin said.
"We would test madly until it could be demonstrated to the world that we were free of disease.
"WA's status would become FMD-free without vaccination and we would be allowed to sell products into markets, which are only buying from countries with that status."
Dr Maddin said Australia's south east would be more difficult to zone because State boundaries did not align well with natural animal movement pathways.
He said another issue was that the vaccine offered four to six months of coverage at best.
This meant farmers would have to vaccinate all susceptible animals repeatedly - a particularly expensive proposition in pastoral areas.
"The virus also mutates itself regularly, so you are always chasing the latest strains," Dr Madin said.
"Then there is the cost, not just for the vaccine, but also for mustering, yarding and handling.
"So a vaccine may cost $2.50, but it ends up being so much more because of the time spent working an animal.
"We don't want to get in a situation where we are constantly vaccinating."
While Australia does have access to vaccination, it is something which should be used in the face of an outbreak - not ahead of it.
There are seven serotypes of the virus, which are further subdivided into more than 60 strains.
The importance of these serotypes is protection against one serotype, through vaccination, will not protect against further protection with another serotype.
Dr Madin said it was rare FMD caused death in adult livestock.
He said occasionally the hearts of very young animals could be affected leading to death, but this was uncommon.
It was production issues including stopping milking, a break in wool or longer time on feed due to reduced growth weight, which could destroy the economics of farming.
This would particularly be the case in more intensively managed livestock.
Spread the word, not the virus
Australian farmers play a critical role in reducing the impact of disease in their own backyards.
Many have already spread the word on responsible behaviour to ensure disease isn't brought in from return travellers.
However, it still may happen.
Dr Madin said if this were the case the single most important element to reducing the size of an outbreak was detection and reporting suspected cases.
He said good biosecurity measures - reducing contact between farm visitors and livestock, not transferring mud and dirty farm equipment between properties and isolating and monitoring newly purchased stock - would help to reduce the FMD risk.
And he urged those who lived and worked in farming areas to educate friends, neighbours and family in good cleaning practices of footwear and equipment, which had been taken overseas.
"Perhaps all returning Australians could be given a complimentary pair of thongs - with a positive biosecurity message on them - upon their overseas return," Dr Madin siad/
"It would probably be easier than trying to disinfect everyone's favourite pair of pluggers."
Dr Madin added, there was far more chance the disease would be imported on illegal food products being smuggled in from FMD affected areas.
He said some cultures were 'very strong' on bringing food when visiting Australia, which threatened more than just FMD.
"There needs to be stronger disincentives to bring food back," he said.
"Higher fines, court appearances, repatriation etc may be a better way to reduce the risk than a thong exchange."
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