Foot-and-mouth disease: How a dirty flip-flop could spell disaster in Australia


Brisbane, Australia
CNN

It’s winter in Australia and for the first time in three years thousands of locals are flying to the Indonesian island of Bali to spend the July school holidays basking in the sun.

But Australian authorities are increasingly concerned about what they will bring home and are considering advising travelers to leave their flip flops – known as flip flops in Australia – in Bali.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is spreading rapidly among cattle in Indonesia, and on Tuesday the first cases were confirmed in Bali, a popular tourist destination with direct flights to seven Australian cities.

“Foot and mouth disease would be catastrophic if it were to arrive in Australia,” said the country’s chief veterinarian, Mark Schipp, who advises the government on ways to keep the virus out.

Foot-and-mouth disease is harmless to humans but causes painful blisters and sores on the mouth and feet of cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and camels, preventing them from eating and , in some cases causing severe lameness and death.

The disease is considered the biggest threat to Australian livestock biosecurity and an outbreak could lead to mass culls of infected animals and shut down Australia’s lucrative beef export market for years to come.

“The impacts on farmers if foot and mouth disease gets in is too heartbreaking to even consider,” said Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers Federation. “But it’s not just about farmers. Erasing $80 billion from Australia’s GDP would be an economic disaster for everyone.

Australia has started tightening biosecurity checks at airports, screening baggage for meat and cheese products and warning tourists that dirt on their shoes could inadvertently cause the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia in 150 years.

But one control that has yet to be rolled out is footbaths – containers of potent chemicals that newcomers step into to kill any traces of the disease they may carry on their shoes. The problem is that the shoes typically worn in casual Bali are not compatible with standard biosecurity measures.

“A lot of people coming back from Bali don’t wear boots, they wear flip flops, flip flops or sandals and you can’t really afford to have that chemical on your skin,” Schipp said.

He said officials were considering telling tourists to ditch their shoes.

“Don’t wear shoes at all, or leave shoes behind,” Schipp said. “If you wear flip flops in Bali, leave them in Bali.”

The advice has not become an official instruction – yet – and is one of several options being considered, he added.

Foot-and-mouth disease is already spreading rapidly in Indonesia, where the first cases were detected in April. In May, the Indonesian authorities alerted Australia, which – with New Zealand, Central and North America and Mainland Western Europe – is free from foot-and-mouth disease.

Indonesia has attempted to roll out a vaccination program, but as of June 27, only 58,275 of the country’s approximately 17 million head of cattle had been vaccinated, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said in a tweet.

Schipp said the slow rollout reflected logistical challenges in a decentralized country made up of thousands of islands.

“You can have the vaccine available at the national level, but it has to be distributed at the provincial and district levels. And then when that happens, the question is, how are we going to introduce that into animals? We have no construction sites. We can’t catch cattle. We don’t have money for gasoline. We have no money for a meal allowance,” he said.

“Those are the types of logistical issues that we have tried to work with them on.”

The timing of the outbreak was dire in Indonesia, weeks before Idul Adha, the “Feast of Sacrifice”, when animals are usually sold in large volumes for slaughter over three days from July 10. After the families have prayed and shared a meal together, they sacrifice livestock and distribute the meat to the poor.

A staff member from the Animal Health Center checks a cow in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, May 17, 2022.

Mike Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease modeling at the University of Warwick, told CNN that it is not culling that dramatically increases the risk of infection, but the “significant movement of animals at the approach to festivals”.

“We see it in Turkey – there is a festival every year (where foot and mouth disease is endemic) called Kurban which also involves the slaughter of large numbers of cattle, preceded by a large movement of cattle across the country and an increase in reported cases of foot and mouth disease is usually seen when this occurs,” he told CNN in an email.

“It is also possible for transmission to occur following contact with carcasses, particularly in the first few hours after slaughter and therefore disposal of potentially infected carcasses should be handled with great care. “, did he declare.

As of July 7, the outbreak in Indonesia had spread to more than 330,000 animals in 21 provinces, according to the agriculture ministry. Thousands more doses of vaccine had arrived from France and more than 350,000 animals had been immunized.

When foot-and-mouth disease was detected in sheep in the UK in 2001, the results were devastating. At the time, government contingency plans covered one infection at 10 properties, according to a government report.

Instead, the disease spread to 57 sites before it was detected, and then a lack of coordination slowed the rollout of emergency vaccinations. In seven months he seeks to eliminate the virus, more than 6 million animals have been killed.

The UK was reinstated as a FMD-free country the following year, but the impact went far beyond trade.

The report found that “tourism has suffered the greatest financial impact of the outbreak, with visitors to Britain and the countryside being deterred by the initial general closure of footpaths by local authorities and media images of burnings of mass”.

The entire episode cost the government and private sector a total of £8 billion ($9.5 billion).

Cattle and sheep burn at the stake on a farm in Lockerbie, Scotland during the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK.

Other countries have learned from the UK’s response, and usually if an outbreak is detected a movement ban would be imposed before animals are culled and sites decontaminated.

For Australia, vaccinating animals is only an option once the virus has entered, as its trading partners cannot tell the difference between a vaccinated animal and a sick animal.

“If we were to vaccinate preventively, we would lose our animal health status as an FMD-free country and we would lose our trade and market access,” Schipp said.

Ross Ainsworth, a 40-year-old veterinarian who lives in Bali, says it’s too easy for tourists on the island to come into contact with livestock and bring the virus home.

“There are cattle everywhere and those cattle will get infected and spread the virus,” he said. The virus can stay alive for a few days on the sole of a shoe, or a bit longer if it’s colder, he said.

Cows roam the streets near tourist villas in Seminyak, a seaside town in southern Bali, on June 6, 2022.

“So if you walk out of your villa and step into infected saliva and get in the taxi and go home, you potentially have another day and a half of viable virus on your foot,” he said.

The National Farmers Federation welcomed the increase in biosecurity checks but said the government should ‘continue to review’ security parameters and potentially subject all incoming travelers from high-risk areas to a biosecurity inspection .

“Everyone should at least be interviewed by a biosecurity officer, if not subject to inspection,” said Simson, the NFF’s president. “We also need to continue to consider optional shoe sanitizing stations,” she said.

” Everything that’s necessary. We don’t want to look back and wish we had done more.

Until potentially contaminated shoes are discarded or foot baths become mandatory, Schipp says the best defense is education. Advertising campaigns are being launched at airports and on social media – but Schipp said that doesn’t mean telling tourists to stay away from cows.

“Seeing cattle in Bali is part of the experience,” he said. “But it’s really easy to wash your hands and make sure your boots are clean before you go home.”

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