AUSTRALIA is better prepared for an incursion of foot and mouth disease (FMD) than it was for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an expert on the virus.
Authorities have been "practising" for decades in preparation for such an incursion and the fact there has not been one for the past 150 years, nor of other viral disease epidemics like African swine fever, was proof "we must be doing something right", said professor John Edwards.
But Mr Edwards, former chief veterinary officer for WA for 10 years and regional co-ordinator for the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) South East Asia and China FMD program 2001-04, described "foot baths" at airports as "largely window dressing".
"(They are) to make people feel better because they see something apparently being done to lessen the risk (of FMD getting to Australia)," he told 30 farmers - all past Nuffield scholars - at a Nuffield Western Australia luncheon last week.
"A lot of publicity so far about FMD has not been related to actual risk - it's been about stopping flights from Bali and throwing out thongs.
"People are assuming nothing is being done and wrongly assume Australia is in the same state or preparedness for FMD as it was for COVID.
"I've spent nearly 50 years of my career preparing for when FMD gets in and the preparations by myself and others have been continuous, all aimed at preventing FMD and planning for what to do if it does get in.
"There has been a lot of focus on FMD for a long time and a lot of the discussion has been on resourcing measures to prevent it and plans for how to respond and how to eliminate it are already in place.
"The medical people who had to deal with COVID-19 coming into Australia had to respond without having that level of planning in advance."
The risk of FMD coming into Australia on footwear or clothing of people who had visited Bali or Indonesia - where authorities are struggling to contain an FMD outbreak that has spread across 22 provinces - was "slight", he said.
The live virus FMD was most likely to infiltrate our defences via infected sausage or processed meat, brought in by a foreign visitor, possibly as an intended gift for family, friends or hosts in Australia, Mr Edwards indicated.
He said border biosecurity obviously needed to concentrate on visitors coming from countries where FMD was endemic, but "particularly coming from countries where they have a culture of giving food as a gift".
Upgraded biosecurity checking last week uncovered dead viral traces of FMD in a potentially illegal beef product brought into Adelaide airport by a person coming from Indonesia and also in imported pork products, also possibly illegal, found in Melbourne shops and a warehouse.
"The first case (of FMD) in Australia is most likely to be in pigs, due to feeding of contaminated meat products," Mr Edwards predicted.
"Swill feeding - feeding meat products to pigs - is banned in Australia, but it is difficult to totally eliminate that.
"From pigs it could spread to sheep and then cattle, he said.
That is what happened with the catastrophic 2000 outbreak in the United Kingdom, which he described as a "game changer".
"In that country infected meat products from China or South East Asia - we're not quite sure which - went through Chinese restaurants in the UK and then scraps were fed to pigs which infected sheep which spread FMD much more widely around the country," he said.
"The sheep were going all around the country to saleyards and (from) farm to farm to try to escape animal culls.
"But mass livestock slaughter, as happened in the UK, would not be acceptable in WA today."
Live animals were "by far the highest risk" of FMD coming in, but no one has brought animals into Australia "for the past 20 years because of this", Mr Edwards pointed out.
Imported meat and dairy products were next most risky, but were strictly controlled and checked and "had to be from a FMD-free source".
"The risks are low and they are managed," he said.
"On footwear and clothes there is a slight risk that can be managed by compliance and education, rather than government mandate".
Mr Edwards said Australia's best protection against FMD was to have "pre-border, border and post-border" layers of preparation.
The best opportunity to prevent an FMD incursion was to work with Indonesia and other South East Asian neighbours to control outbreaks before they arrived here and to help build their capacity, he said.
As well, analysing and risk assessing value chains to identify critical control points and inspection, quality control and certification of product offshore at source.
Strengthening and monitoring all procedures, plus risk analysis and targeting highest risk pathways were obvious border measures and post border, good onfarm biosecurity, enhanced surveillance, rapid response and management of incursions was required, as well as periodic revision and rehearsal of preparedness plans and communication.
"The answer is not having one level of biosecurity - like throw out your thongs - it is actually having a series of management processes in place, so if one fails, the next will pick it (FMD) up," Mr Edwards said.
He said there were seven main varieties of FMD and many more subvarieties which affected vaccine protection.
"If you don't get the right vaccine, you won't stop it," he said.
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