Following reports of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in cattle in Indonesia, there's a risk that it could make its way to Australia due to the number of people travelling to and from Indonesia's tourist areas.

If the disease manages to reach Australia, this will be devastating for the country's agriculture industry and could potentially have some health impacts. As such, we're going to take an in-depth deep dive into the disease, why it's so deadly, its potential impact, and what we can do to minimise the risk of it spreading.

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What is foot and mouth disease?

FMD is a highly contagious viral disease that impacts cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs. The disease is a potentially severe threat to Australia's livestock industry and export markets should it find its way into the country.

The virus is characterised by the formation of vesicles (fluid-filled blisters) and ulcers in the mouth. While signs of FMD vary depending on the species infected and the strain of the virus, some common symptoms and clinical signs include:

  • Blisters (vesicles) in the mouth, nostrils, teats or on the feet

  • Slobbering/drooling

  • Lameness or a reluctance to move

  • Lack of appetite

  • Sudden death in young animals

  • A large drop in milk yield in dairy animals

  • Abortion in pigs.

Animals infected with FMD will usually show signs within three to five days of infection, but it can take up to 14 days in some cases. Infected animals can also spread the virus before any signs of the disease start showing.

While many infected animals may survive FMD, the recovery time is long, they often don't regain their full productivity, and they may also become carriers of the virus.

Does it affect humans?

While FMD has a similar name to the 'hand, foot and mouth' disease found in people, it's not the same thing. Infections of humans with FMD are extremely rare and any symptoms are temporary and mild.

Cases of FMD in humans will only very occasionally result in clinical disease (such as fever, and vesicles on the hands, feet, or mouth). People with open skin wounds can be infected with FMD if they're handling diseased animals or drink infected milk, and it's possible for humans to carry the virus in their nose for up to 24 hours which in turn can lead to the infection of animals. The Department of Agriculture assures that FMD will not be transmitted to humans through the consumption of meat.

Due to the relative low risk FMD poses to people, it is not considered to be a public health problem in Australia.

How is it spread?

FMD is a viral disease that spreads rapidly between animals through breath, saliva, mucus, milk, and faeces via inhalation, ingestion, and direct contact. Once infected, these animals can be infectious for up to four days before showing any signs of the disease. Pigs in particular are highly susceptible to FMD and can excrete very large quantities of the virus, which in turn can be spread to other animals.

As for humans, while FMD has minimal impact on people, individuals can carry the virus on their shoes, clothes or in their nasal passages where it can survive for up to 24 hours and be spread to vulnerable animals.

FMD is able to survive for long periods of time in animal hides, certain dairy products, and chilled, cured or salted meats. While FMD does not survive for long in hot and dry conditions, it can survive for up to 6 months in cool and moist environments. Research has also identified that under certain conditions, the virus may still remain infective for 11 weeks on leather boots and 13 weeks on rubber boots.

How could it enter Australia and what impact could it have?

The most likely way for FMD to enter Australia is through the illegal importation of meat and dairy products that carry the disease. FMD can also enter Australia by returning overseas travellers who have been in infected areas or been in contact with infected animals and have brought the virus back with them on their footwear, clothes, or equipment.

While FMD has been previously detected in Australia after minor outbreaks in the 1800s, an outbreak in the present day may result in significant social and economic losses. In a recent study from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), a small scale three month outbreak will cost an estimated $7.1 billion, whereas a large scale outbreak lasting a year will cost up to $16 billion and can lead $50 billion in economic losses over the next 10 years.

What can we do to minimise the risk of this spreading?

All recent travellers returning home from Indonesia (particularly Java and Bali) must:

  • Must be on alert and aware of the threat of FMD.

  • Wash everything you have worn, including shoes.

  • Declare all animal products and let airport screening officials know if you have been in contact with animals.

For farmers, they must:

  • Be aware of the symptoms of FMD and check animals regularly.

  • Report any signs to the Emergency Animal Disease hotline at 1800 675 888.

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Information sourced from: WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Department of Primary Industries, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry, and ABC.

Image credit: Klara Kulikova at Unsplash

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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