What is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)?
FMD is an acute infectious viral disease. It is probably more infectious than any other disease affecting animals and spreads very rapidly if uncontrolled.
Which animals does FMD affect?
Susceptible farm animals include cattle, sheep, pigs, deer, goats and alpacas. Other susceptible animals include elephants, giraffes, camels, llamas, hedgehogs, buffalo and some rodents.
Horses are not susceptible. Nor are most family pets, such as dogs, cats, rabbits, fish or birds.
Why is FMD such a serious problem?
In infected animals, the FMD blisters usually burst after a few days and the resultant sores generally clear up over a few weeks. During this time, animals have considerable difficulty in eating and walking. FMD therefore causes much suffering and loss in production. However, FMD is not usually fatal in healthy adult animals.
If an FMD outbreak were to occur, our major export markets for meat, dairy product and possibly even wool would be closed to us immediately. This could devastate our livestock industries, our processing industries and rural communities. As the 2001 FMD outbreak in the UK demonstrated, an outbreak of FMD here would also have a significant effect on our tourism industry. It is estimated that a large multi-state outbreak of FMD could cost the Australian economy $AUD 51 billion in lost revenue over 10 years - which translates into a very large number of jobs lost and businesses shutting down. It is also estimated that the rural communities most directly affected could take up to ten years to recover from the effects of a FMD outbreak.
What are the symptoms?
The FMD virus causes blisters in and around mouths, feet and teats; it can also damage juvenile tissues causing neonatal losses. The blisters burst and begin to heal over the next week or two leaving varying degrees of scarring or hoof abnormality. So FMD-infected animals may have a combination of fever, lameness, weight loss, drooling, blisters/healing sores/scarring in and around mouths, feet and teats and an unusual number of calf, lamb or piglet deaths in the herd or flock.
Pictures of FMD infected animals usually show very obvious symptoms. In actual practice, the blisters and sores are not always as obvious. This is particularly so in sheep and goats, where the percentage of infected animals exhibiting graphic blisters or sores can be quite small. This is why it is so important to thoroughly inspect animals with more general signs like lameness or sudden weight loss to find out why and rule out FMD and other serious problems.
If you do see something unusual contact the all hours emergency animal disease hotline on 1800 675 888.
Does FMD affect humans?
FMD is not a serious threat to human health. There have been very isolated cases of people, who have been working extensively with FMD infected animals, developing mild flu-like symptoms. There is no evidence that FMD can be caught by members of the general public. There is a human condition known as Hand Foot and Mouth Disease. It is not related in any way to Foot and Mouth Disease.
There is no evidence that there is any risk to human health from eating meat or dairy product that might be from a FMD infected animal.
How could FMD be introduced into Tasmania?
The FMD virus is not present in Australia, so any outbreak would have to be the result of the virus being brought in from overseas.
FMD usually enters countries via the importation of infected animals, semen or infected food. That's why Australia doesn't allow imports of any live animals, semen, uncooked meat or unprocessed dairy products from FMD affected countries.
Other risks are soil, straw and other material that might be on imported farm machinery, used animal handling equipment, or on footwear or clothing that could harbour the FMD virus.
The UK outbreak in 2001 was most likely started by a farmer who fed his pigs swill, which included infected meat that had come from overseas. Swill feeding is banned in Tasmania and it is banned everywhere else in Australia. The ban on swill feeding reduces the risk of FMD as well as some other exotic pig diseases being introduced and spread.
What can we do to prevent FMD entering Tasmania?
Tasmania benefits from Australia's strict quarantine regulations. Individual Australians need to play their part as well.
If you are planning an overseas trip, make sure you know what you are not allowed to bring back into Australia.
Maintaining good biosecurity practices when you visit farms ANYWHERE also reduces the chances of you bringing something unwanted back to Tasmania and your property. Cleaning boots and equipment used on animals before returning and changing your clothes before coming in contact with your animals is a useful habit to get into.
How is FMD spread?
The FMD virus is present in great quantity in the fluid from the blisters on an infected animal. It can also be present in saliva, exhaled air, milk, semen and dung. At the height of the disease, virus is present in the blood and all parts of the infected animal's body.
Animals can pick up the virus by close contact with an infected animal or with foodstuffs, equipment, people or anything else that may have been contaminated by the virus. While humans cannot become infected, they can nevertheless spread the virus. Hair, clothes and mud in and on vehicles are the most likely means of humans spreading the disease.
When it comes to airborne spread, not all animals are equal. Pigs are important to airborne spread because an infected pig's breath contains a large quantity of FMD virus particles. Given sufficient pigs and the right local conditions, a viral plume can occur. While local airborne spread is more likely, spread of the virus can occur over considerable distances. This requires favourable climatic conditions in terms of wind speed, humidity and air temperatures.
In short, the greatest risk of FMD spread comes from animal to animal contact, virus on 'things' carried between farms and local airborne virus from infected pigs.
Does Tasmania have a plan in place to deal with an FMD outbreak?
Yes. All states have agreed to a detailed contingency plan for responding to the outbreak of any of the major exotic animal diseases, including FMD (AUSVETPLAN). Access AUSVETPLAN in full.
Tasmania is also a signatory to a national cost sharing agreement. This enables Governments and industries to share the costs of responses to emergency animal disease incursions. Note that compensation is available to farmers whose livestock are slaughtered during the response. This is to ensure that livestock owners report suspicions of disease as quickly as possible.
A National Biosecurity Emergency Response Team (NBERT) has also been established at the national level to assist the response to major biosecurity emergencies such as an FMD outbreak.
What would happen in the first few days if we had an outbreak in Tasmania?
- There would be an immediate ban on all susceptible livestock movements (livestock standstill). This would be enforced nationally. As a result, all livestock sales and shows would be cancelled. Any susceptible animal movements would require a special permit and then only in very exceptional circumstances.
- Our key export markets for meat, dairy product and possibly even wool would be closed to us.
- Areas would be declared according to their infection risk - a Restricted Area that has infect properties within it, and a Control Area that surrounds the Restricted Area where FMD has not been detected. It is likely all of Tasmania would be declared as a Control Area to start with. Restrictions on animal and product movement would be enforced in those areas.
- People in contact with susceptible livestock would be required to adhere to increased biosecurity measures when coming on and off farms.
- Restrictions on the movement of animal products (ie meat, dairy produce and possibly wool) and live susceptible animals would be determined by the origin and destination of the product.
- The number of tourists coming into Tasmania would fall significantly, with a resultant loss of jobs in the tourism industry;
- There would be intensive observations and testing of animals to detect FMD as soon as possible before it spreads. There may also be mass vaccination of animals. This means relatively large numbers of response staff in some areas. Animal owners and managers would also need to be very vigilant and report suspect cases immediately.
- All susceptible animals (ie cattle, sheep, pigs etc) on infected properties would be humanely destroyed as these animals represent the highest risk of spread while they are alive. Other control measures such as vaccination (if available) to create a buffer to virus spread may be implemented. The control measures used on any one property will be selected according to the level of risk of disease spread.
- If the movement restrictions prevented the transport of finished intensively housed animals to abattoirs such as pigs, those animals may also be slaughtered for welfare reasons to prevent overstocking.
- Disposal of large numbers of carcases would begin, such as by burial in large excavated pits, with the methods used depending on local conditions prevailing at the time.
What would happen in the first few days if we had an outbreak on the mainland but were able to keep it out of Tasmania?
Our key export markets would still be closed to us.
An immediate ban on all livestock entering Tasmania would be implemented.
The national livestock standstill would be followed by restrictions and increased biosecurity measures on the movement of livestock to limit undetected infection.
There would be few if any restrictions on the movement of animal products (such as meat and dairy produce).
There would be increased messaging at entry points reminding people arriving in Tasmania from the mainland to be aware of biosecurity.
All susceptible livestock that had entered Tasmania in the previous three or four weeks would be traced and subjected to mandatory surveillance.
If no case of FMD occurs in Tasmania for three weeks after the livestock standstill has been in force, it is likely that the disease has been successfully kept out of the State. Surveillance and vigilance would need to be maintained however while the disease was present on the mainland.
Once we are confident FMD was not in Tasmania, we would send teams of biosecurity staff to the mainland to help eliminate the disease over there.
What happens when an FMD outbreak is over?
- After the disposal and decontamination of the last FMD case in an area, sentinel animals are placed on the previously infected properties. These animals are regularly tested for FMD for a period of time to detect residual contamination. If no sign of FMD is detected either on the previously infected properties and in other surveillance, an application for the reinstatement of Australia's FMD free status can be made to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); The soonest this can happen is 3 months after the disposal of the last infected animal.
- If the OIE approves the reinstatement of FMD free status, our key export markets can be re-opened. This will not necessarily mean we resume trade. It simply means we can now compete with those countries that have been supplying our traditional export markets during the FMD outbreak.
- The process of rebuilding the ravaged rural communities and industry sectors, including the tourism industry, which started on day one of the response, continues.
How widespread is FMD?
FMD is widespread. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) currently lists 65 countries with the same FMD-free status as Australia. Some other countries have zones that are recognised as being free of the disease.
FMD was last recorded in Australia in 1871.
If an outbreak of FMD were to occur on a property nearby, what immediate steps could people take to help contain the spread of the disease?
1. Move all livestock away from the boundaries of your property.
As soon as they are told of an FMD outbreak in their region, the first thing livestock owners should do is move their livestock away from their boundaries - ideally into paddocks with secure fencing in the middle of their property. If all livestock owners do this, it will create a network of buffer zones.
If you have livestock on a property that is separate from your home block, the livestock standstill will prevent you bringing your animals home. You should move your animals away from the boundaries on each of your separate properties.
2. Change, scrub and disinfect between properties.
As no one knows where the infection has gone initially, you should immediately instigate simple biosecurity measures at your own property - limit your own contact with other people's livestock; change your clothes and scrub and disinfect boots and equipment before you leave your property; and keep your vehicles clean and free of mud before going out on the road.
3. Isolate any recent livestock arrivals and contact the State Coordination Centre (SCC)
Make sure you update the NLIS register if you have bought any livestock or if you have had any animals arrive on your property for any other reason (for example, agistment, the loan of a bull or ram etc). If the new animals have come from the infected property or anywhere near it in the past three weeks, you should contact the SCC immediately and arrange for these animals to be inspected for any sign of the disease.
4. Make sure the SCC knows about any pigs nearby.
With most species, it requires close contact between an infected animal and an uninfected animal for FMD to spread. That is why creating buffer zones around each property (see above) could be the most effective action we can take in the early hours of an outbreak. However, pigs present a much greater problem, in terms of containing the spread of FMD.
An infected pig's breath contains about 1,000 times the concentration of FMD virus particles when compared with the breath of an infected cow or sheep. It is therefore most important that we know about any pig in the region.
As part of our emergency animal disease preparedness responsibilities, our biosecurity officers visit pig owners regularly to conduct swill feeding inspections to varify no-one is supplying or feeding swill to pigs. The Tasmanian Agricultural Property Database includes commercial pig farmers and many smallholders who have pigs. We continually update that database and encourage livestock owners to do likewise via their Property Identification Code (PIC) registration. This information will be essential in the event of an FMD outbreak. However, it is inevitable that some people who have a "backyard" pig or two might not be on our database, so it is important that these pig owners contact the authorities as soon as possible if an FMD outbreak were to occur.
5. Get the latest information on the outbreak and proper advice on what you can do to help contain the spread of the disease.
An outbreak of a highly contagious animal disease such as FMD is likely to cause great anxiety in the community - especially among livestock owners near the infected property or properties. The UK outbreak in 2001 showed that rumours and ill-advised theories about the disease can spread quickly and can make a difficult situation much, much worse.
If you are a livestock owner or a resident of the region where an FMD outbreak has occurred, what you do - especially in the first few days of an outbreak - could have a major influence on how far the disease spreads. So, please make sure that, when you get advice on what to do, it is good advice based on sound science and the collective experiences of the vets and others who have actually worked in combating FMD outbreaks overseas.
If an FMD outbreak were to occur anywhere in Australia, a phone hotline will be operating within hours. It will be able to answer most queries from the public about any aspect of the disease outbreak. The hotline number will be advertised extensively and also posted on our website as soon as an FMD outbreak is confirmed.
A special website www.outbreak.gov.au has been established to provide the latest information on any emergency animal or plant disease outbreaks in Australia. This website can be accessed now. It would be used to provide the latest information on any FMD outbreak, as it comes to hand, online.
Please understand that our knowledge about the nature and spread of a particular FMD outbreak is likely to change rapidly in the first few days. There is every chance that further outbreaks may be diagnosed elsewhere around the State. If this happens, information about the restrictions on livestock movements and advice on other biosecurity measures may change rapidly during the first few days of an outbreak. Please check the www.outbreak.gov.au website regularly or listen to your local radio news, ABC Country Hour, etc. to ensure you have the latest information on the outbreak and what restrictions are in place.
6. Abide by all movement restrictions. (Please note that the following information about movement restrictions is a guide only. If we were to have an FMD outbreak, details of movement restrictions would be broadcast widely, including on this website, and they would override the general information provided below.)
The point of restrictions on the movement of animals, animal products and humans during an FMD outbreak is to help contain the spread of the disease. Anybody breaching these movement restrictions would be placing the community at considerable risk.
If there were to be an outbreak of FMD, the initial movement restrictions would be very wide ranging. This is because it may take some time for the authorities to identify the specific strain of FMD virus and to have a reasonable idea of how far it may have already spread. Once the nature of the outbreak is better understood, some of the initial movement restrictions may be relaxed.
A permit system would be established to enable the movement of susceptible livestock and products, providing they are not at risk of spreading the virus.
As a general principle, authorities will attempt to minimise disruption of normal business as much as possible although the nature of the disease and the response it necessitates may not assist this aim. Specific assistance for individual farms and affected communities is a component of the response.
Advice to livestock owners
Inspect your livestock regularly. Any unusual signs of disease should be investigated. If you don't know what is causing the problem, find out. If necessary, call a vet to check the animal.
It is most important that possible FMD symptoms are checked by a vet. If your vet is unavailable, don't delay - contact the all hours Emergency Disease Hotline on 1800 675 888 and speak to the duty vet.
If you suspect that someone is feeding swill to their pigs or if you know of someone attempting to sell swill to pig owners, it is most important that such activities are reported to the authorities. The outbreak of FMD in the UK in 2001 caused the slaughter of millions of livestock, the loss of thousands of jobs, the closure of many businesses and serious long term damage to many rural communities. It was probably started by a farmer feeding swill to his pigs.
More information on FMD
The Australian Government Department of Agriculture
website on Foot and Mouth Disease.
The UK government website on FMDAUSVETPLAN Disease Strategies