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By Fiona McFarlane Jacobbe McBride 3 August 2022 8 min read

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) virus has not been detected in animals in Australia for more than 150 years. We would like to keep it that way.

We asked two of our experts at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, Dr Wilna Vosloo and Dr Phoebe Readford, to answer some common questions.

Dr Wilna Vosloo leads our Disease Mitigation Technologies Group and FMD research program at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.

What is Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)?

FMD is a highly contagious viral disease of cloven-hoofed animals.

From a production perspective we are most concerned about cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and Asian buffalo (water buffalo). Other susceptible animals, such as feral pigs and deer, can also play a role in spreading the disease.

Symptoms of FMD include blisters in and around the mouth, tongue and feet of the infected animals. Consequently the infected animals might drool or limp. Blisters can also occur on teats of lactating animals.

Most animals will recover from the virus. However, some may never recover their previous production levels, especially dairy cows. Mortality is rare, but does occur in young animals due to their heart muscles being affected.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Can FMD spread to humans?

There is no threat to human health from this disease. FMD should not be confused with hand, foot and mouth disease. Hand, foot and mouth disease affects humans (mostly children). FMD affects cloven-hoofed animals and not humans. Different viruses cause these diseases.

Humans who have been in close contact with infected animals can carry FMD virus in their nose. They can be a source of infection for animals. This is why we are asking people to not get too close to susceptible animals for seven days after exposure.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Is the meat of infected animals safe for people to eat?

The meat of an infected animal is safe for people to eat. But if there ever is an FMD outbreak in Australia, our rules do not allow animals with clinical signs of infection to be slaughtered for human consumption.

But it is important to understand that some goods from overseas could bring FMD virus into Australia. This includes meat, dairy and some animal products, such as untreated hides. If susceptible animals eat, or are exposed to these products, it may result in an outbreak.

So, please check what products are allowed to come into Australia before you bring it back or mail goods to Australia. And do not ask your family overseas to send you any animal or plant products. Some foods, animal and plant products can carry pests or diseases that you won’t know are there.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

How does FMD spread between animals?

FMD spreads rapidly through close contact of infected animals. This is via virus excreted in their breath, saliva, mucous, semen, milk and faeces. Animals then become infected via inhalation, ingestion or direct contact.

Infected animals can excrete and transmit the virus for several days before symptoms occur. This makes it more difficult to track its spread.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Clinical signs of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) infection can be absent or very mild in sheep.

How does FMD spread across distances?

The most common way for the disease to spread is by the movement of infected animals. In sheep, for example, symptoms can be absent or very mild. Undetected, infected sheep can be an important source of infection and spread.

However, meat and dairy products can carry the FMD virus as well as semen, bones, untreated hides, wool, hair, grass and straw. Mud, soil, manure, and vehicles and equipment used with livestock, can also carry the virus.

This is why good biosecurity measures are so important for our farmers and in helping to keep FMD out of Australia. We all share this responsibility. If you travel to rural areas in a country where FMD occurs, wash your shoes and clothes before returning to Australia. Declare your movements to the quarantine officers on your return and they will give you detailed advice.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

What impact would FMD have on the Australian economy?

FMD is the greatest disease threat to Australia’s livestock industries.

Our current status as a country free from FMD allows many of our agricultural products to be exported. An outbreak would severely impact these export markets causing devastating economic losses.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences have modelled the economic impact of a FMD outbreak. They estimated an impact of $80 billion to Australia’s livestock industry over a 10-year period.

However, it is important to remember the impacts would be felt more broadly than just economically. An FMD incursion would have severe consequences for the social and mental wellbeing of everybody involved. It would impact our supply chain and be felt well beyond farming communities. There would be impacts on hospitality and tourism, and the domestic supply of food products. A large outbreak may even directly impact food security in less developed countries in our region.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Has Australia experienced a FMD outbreak before?

Yes, we believe there may have been minor outbreaks of FMD during the 1800s.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

FMD is considered the greatest disease threat to Australia’s livestock industries.

What happens if FMD reaches Australia?

Australia has detailed and well-rehearsed FMD response plans and arrangements in place should we get an outbreak here.

You can find lots of information about the actions that would be implemented on the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry website: Action by governments – FMD prevention and preparedness.

The response plans would follow the FMD AUSVETPLAN disease strategy. This sets out the nationally agreed approach if there was an FMD incursion.

We have also been leading a project, in partnership with industry and government, called the Foot and Mouth Disease Ready project. This helps ensure Australia is prepared for an outbreak, if one does occur.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Is there a vaccine against FMD?

There are vaccines available and we have access to these via the Australian Vaccine Bank. So we are prepared in the event of a FMD incursion. Vaccination can be an important tool in managing an outbreak. Our research also focuses on ensuring these vaccines will be effective should we need to use them.

We are members of the FMD Vaccine Expert Advisory Group, which assesses the global FMD situation. Keeping a close eye on the global FMD situation means we know which vaccine strains the Australian Vaccine Bank needs to include.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Are the vaccines in use in Australia?

Australia is currently recognised as ‘free from FMD, without vaccination’. This allows Australia’s international trade to continue with countries that require this level of freedom from FMD.

If we were to start a vaccination program, in the absence of an outbreak, our status would change to ‘free from FMD, with vaccination’. This will affect our trade arrangements. However, if we have an incursion, vaccination may be one of the measures to help control the outbreak.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

How can Australian farmers prepare for an outbreak of FMD?

Farmers should be alert to an outbreak of FMD in Australia, but not alarmed.

This means it is important for our livestock producers to look for signs of disease in their animals. If they detect signs of illness consistent with FMD, they must report this to the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

The Farm Biosecurity website provides free tools and resources for producers to develop a biosecurity management plan for their property.

Dr Wilna Vosloo

Dr Phoebe Readford leads the International Program at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.

How can Australian travellers returning from overseas destinations where the virus is present stop the spread of FMD?

Make sure you clean all clothing, equipment and footwear thoroughly, particularly of mud, soil and manure. Declare on arrival if you have visited any high risk areas.

Gear used in rural areas, zoos and markets or near susceptible animals should be the particular focus of a deep clean. This includes mountain bikes and sporting equipment.

Be sure to declare any goods and souvenirs if you have been to a rural area or come in contact with farm animals in the last 30 days.

Dr Phoebe Readford

What is CSIRO doing to help?

We play a critical role in Australia’s ‘pre-border’ biosecurity preparedness. This means we help to prevent and reduce threats before they get to our borders.

Pre-border assistance in neighbouring countries is one of our best defences against outbreaks of exotic animal diseases. When our near neighbours are good at preventing, detecting and responding to disease outbreaks, they have a better chance of controlling them quickly. This reduces the impacts on their own country and reduces the risk to Australia and our important livestock industries.

We have been working with many countries across southeast Asia for decades. We provide training in disease surveillance techniques and laboratory diagnosis. This includes providing diagnostic kits for priority animal diseases like FMD and Lumpy Skin Disease.

Dr Phoebe Readford

How else is CSIRO helping Australia?

The recent outbreak of FMD and Lumpy Skin Disease in Indonesia has increased the risk of exotic animal diseases coming to Australia. In light of this, we are bolstering our capability, both through staff and laboratory resources.

We have increased the number of tests we have on hand for testing for FMD virus. This will cover the need in the first few weeks of a response to a disease outbreak, and more tests can be ordered.

Dr Phoebe Readford

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