"Farmers are extremely nervous." All your questions about foot and mouth disease, answered.

In the last few weeks, conversations around Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) have been circulating across Australia. 

When we opened our international borders, the Australian Government was well aware of the risk of COVID. But there's another virus that is on the national agenda - and it's FMD.

There are mounting fears FMD could infiltrate Australia and decimate our multi-billion dollar livestock industry, which means Aussie farmers are worried about what a spread of the disease could mean for their livelihoods.

But for many people in our regional areas, it has felt as though their concerns have potentially been falling on deaf ears. That is until now. Because an outbreak wouldn't just impact farmers - it would impact everyone.

But what exactly is FMD and why are travellers returning from Bali at the centre of this conversation? How do you pick it up? Is it a risk to your health? What can we do to stop it from being introduced into Australia?

These are all valid questions many of us are asking ourselves. So to provide some context, Mamamia's news podcast The Quicky spoke to a passionate advocate for the farming industry and Australia's Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer to find out what you need to know.

What is Foot and Mouth disease?

FMD is a contagious viral disease which impacts livestock - pigs, cattle, sheep and goats - and holds serious consequences for agriculture industries. It commonly spreads from animal to animal and it very rarely can spread to humans as it is a very low-risk disease for humans. 

FMD shouldn't be confused with the human disease that is hand, foot and mouth, which is different. FMD is also not transmitted to humans by eating affected meat.

The FMD virus is carried by live animals and in meat and dairy products, as well as in soil, bones, untreated hides, vehicles and equipment used with these animals. It can also be carried on people's clothing and footwear.

FMD is a disease that Australia has been very fortunate to keep out of the country for quite some time, with the virus not detected in Australia for over 150 years.

What happens to an animal that's been infected with FMD?

Dr Beth Cookson is the Australian Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer based at the Federal Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. 

Speaking to The Quicky she said: "Animals typically when they get FMD will develop blisters around the mouth and on their hooves. It creates a situation where animals don't want to eat, they drool a lot and don't want to stand up. It does become a welfare issue for those animals, and that's why among other reasons for disease control, euthanasia often occurs."

Listen to The Quicky. Story continues after audio.

Where has FMD been detected?

In May 2022, an outbreak of FMD was reported in cattle in Indonesia and it has since spread to Bali. The disease has since reportedly begun to spread through Asia.

Last week, Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt visited Indonesia to gather more information. It comes as Australian travellers return from the holiday destination in droves.

A few days ago, viral fragments of FMD were detected in pork products at a Melbourne retailer. The products, believed to be imported from China, were detected in the Melbourne CBD as part of routine surveillance and were seized and destroyed.

Federal Agriculture Minister Watt said: "This is not the first time in Australian history that we have picked up foot and mouth disease viral fragments in meat products - it's happened a number of other times in airport settings."

At this point, Australia remains free of the diseases as the live virus was not detected, but the findings have highlighted why biosecurity measures are crucial.

Why are farmers worried?

Catherine Marriott is one of many people worried about the prospect of FMD entering Australia. 

Marriott is the CEO of Riverine Plains, an independent farming systems group dedicated to improving the productivity of broad-acre farming systems in north-east Victoria and southern New South Wales. She recently posted a viral video about the best way travellers can prevent FMD from entering Australia, in a bid to get the message out to all Australians.

"Farmers are extremely nervous at the moment. If it gets in - it's an animal welfare nightmare waiting to happen," she told The Quicky.

We've seen first-hand just how detrimental FMD can be. In 2001, Britain experienced an outbreak of the disease, which had serious consequences - costing around $13 billion and the loss of over six million animals. Because it's not just animals that have FMD that need to be euthanized, but other livestock who have been in contact with the infected animals too. 

Watch: The devastating impact of foot-and-mouth disease on Britain in 2001. Story continues below.

Video via 60 Minutes.

At the time, 60 Minutes spoke to one British farmer who had lost everything. "There's nobody here that isn't affected - it's very hard. It isn't just your income you're losing, it's everything. We lost every animal we owned - 600 dairy cattle, 5,500 sheep. I feel a sense of guilt - it's always in the back of your mind."

Marriott told The Quicky these historic events have stayed in Australian farmers' minds too. "We as an agricultural sector kept a really close eye on Britain when that happened. Rural communities are now extremely nervous."

Thanks to strict quarantine procedures, Australia managed to lock out FMD back then. But the fear is that with Bali being so close to Australia, the threat of spread now is bigger.

The economic impact of a Foot and Mouth disease outbreak. 

The Federal Government has said discussions with state leaders and the agriculture industry are taking place, along with enacting stricter protocols. There will also be stringent controls for returning holiday-makers.

And with around 100 flights each week from Australia to Bali, FMD is the closest it has ever been to Australia.  

Dairy NSW Regional Officer Alicia Richters warned the repercussions of the disease hitting the industry would be felt by every Australian consumer as the cost of food would spiral.

Because it doesn't just impact Australian meat products - it would also mean no dairy products, and raise the price of groceries.

"Nobody wants to be the person who brings in a disease that would devastate our livestock industry, cost the economy $80 billion, and shatter regional communities for years to come," Richters told AAP.

"We've already been devastated this year with significant flooding, we had our fourth flood only last week. It would take a massive toll not only on our producers but the service industry too."

The emotional impact of a Foot and Mouth disease outbreak.

As noted above, the prediction is that an FMD outbreak here would cost the economy over $80 billion. But there would be an emotional impact too. 

After dealing with the mouse plague, bushfires, flooding and COVID, the impact of FMD on farmers' mental health could be devastating too. 

Marriott said she is glad authorities have stepped up, but she fears more needs to be done.

"Imagine the mental load of having to euthanize your entire herd - not only is it your life's work, but it's also the fact that you would be having to euthanize animals that you genuinely care about," she said.

"The message to get out is to implore people that we're all in this together. If I can inspire the broader public - the non-agricultural people - and help them understand why it's really important to keep this disease out and the impact it would have on them - perhaps we have a better chance at keeping it out."

What the government is doing to quash the threat of Foot and Mouth disease.

The measures taken by the Federal Government so far include:

  • Assistance offered to Indonesian authorities to combat and contain the outbreak. 
  • Import permits have been reviewed for animal products from Indonesia that may carry FMD, and imports of concern have been suspended.
  • Awareness campaigns to Australia's livestock producers and agriculture industries, travellers and a range of other stakeholders have commenced. 
  • There are now stronger clearance requirements for travellers entering through airports.
  • There is increased screening and the implementation of sanitation mats rolled out at international airports. There is also particular attention being given to the Top End.

What travellers coming from Bali can do to help.

Research has found the virus can live and remain infective on a rubber boot sole for 13 weeks - and for leather shoes, it's 11 weeks. That means if you are in Bali on holiday, wearing runners or thongs and happen to step in animal urine or faeces, and wear those shoes back to Australia, you could easily bring the virus with you. 

So what can travellers do?

Dr Cookson told The Quicky that it's key for travellers to wash everything they bring back with them, or at least dispose of any shoes or clothing potentially impacted. 

Travellers must also declare on their Incoming Passenger Card if they have visited a rural area or been in contact with, or near, farm animals. There are of course no penalties for truthfully declaring or disposing of items before undergoing biosecurity screening. Australians should also stay away from livestock for at least a week after their return.

"Any measure that people take to reduce the risk to Australia and rural communities is worth thinking about. FMD is one of the diseases we have been planning on dealing with a potential outbreak for a long time," she said. 

NSW Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders said recently that a vaccine was being developed using mRNA technology to tackle eight different strains of the disease.

In the meantime, Dr Cookson said that she hopes travellers going to and coming back from Bali remain vigilant.

"Be absolutely scrupulous, because we're all in this together. I think as Australians we enjoy and are really proud of having safe meat and dairy products - that could all come to a standstill if someone accidentally brought in something."

For more information, visit the Federal Government's page on Foot and Mouth disease here

Feature Image: Getty.

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