Foot and mouth disease: Aussies returning from Bali put on alert as virus detected

Cows foot and mouth disease

Photographer: Brad Griffin.

As thousands of Australian holidaymakers prepare to return from their winter vacation in Bali, they are being warned that, with foot and mouth disease spreading through Indonesia, they could be carrying a devastating disease time bomb on their feet or in their backpacks.

Foot and mouth disease was detected in Bali last month, travelling from neighbouring island Java, and experts are warning that one dirty pair of thongs could shut down Australia’s $27 billion livestock export trade for months, decimating the industry.

For Australians returning from Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia, here’s what you need to know about the deadly disease to help keep Australia’s borders safe.

What is foot and mouth disease?

Foot and mouth disease is one of the most serious livestock diseases out there. It’s a highly contagious virus that affects cloven-hoofed animals — that is, animals with feet divided into two parts, so cows, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats and pigs. Horses are not affected by the virus.

The virus presents as blisters around the mouth and hoofs of the infected animals that turn into painful ulcers that ultimately stop the animals from walking and eating. It is incredibly contagious — about as contagious as the COVID-19 Omicron variant, according to Professor Michael Ward — and in most cases, the whole flock will catch it.

The disease has a very low mortality rate but a very high economic impact, as the only way to control it from spreading is through culling and vaccination (a difficult process as there are numerous strains of and numerous species susceptible to the virus).

Why are we so worried about bringing it to Australia?

Australia is historically free of foot and mouth disease, but you might remember the outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 that caused a crisis in British agriculture and tourism, costing the UK an estimated £8 billion (approximately $15 billion) and involved the pre-emptive culling of thousands of animals.

If foot and mouth disease is found in Australia, we would be cut off from the export market, which makes up about 70% of Australia’s meat trade. If the disease does reach our shores, the estimated cost is about $80 billion.

On top of this, having never dealt with our own outbreak before, it’s hard to know how quickly we could eradicate the virus. While vaccines could assist with livestock, the disease could easily get into Australia’s feral animal population, which would be incredibly difficult to control.

Australia’s Agriculture Minister Murray Watt left for Jakarta yesterday to assess Indonesia’s response to the disease and to offer assistance, according to The Australian Financial Review, and last week biosecurity measures were strengthened across all Australian airports, including detector dogs operating in Darwin and Cairns.

Nationals leader David Littleproud has called for disease-killing chemical foot baths to be set up for Australians returning home, but Watt rejected his calls.

How to prevent bringing back the disease

Humans can’t catch foot and mouth disease, but we can carry it on our shoes and clothes or even up our noses. The virus can last up to 24 hours, which, given a flight from Bali to Australia is only between two and a half to seven hours, is more than long enough. Holidaymakers could easily pick up the virus on their clothes or shoes by visiting farms, petting buffalos or pigs in markets or fields, or even just by walking around temple grounds, the road or the sidewalk.

According to Nine News, the Australian Border Force has confirmed that more than 128,000 Australian passport holders travelled to Bali in June. It only takes one case to decimate the industry.

The best way to avoid bringing the disease back to Australian shores is to steer clear of animals on your trip. However, you can’t know what cloven-hoofed beast has walked the streets before you, so experts are also warning that you ditch your footwear on the island.

Yet, throw out those thongs (it’s winter here, anyway) and even consider getting rid of any other shoes you brought with you. Failing that, give them a seriously good clean before packing them into your suitcase. Launder as many of your clothes as possible before your flight as well to stop the disease from clinging to your shirts and pants.

Upon arrival in Australia, passengers should closely follow new and existing biosecurity orders — this is always a given, but make sure to err on the side of caution. Alert officers to anything that may have come into contact with an animal and don’t be precious about your luggage. There’s a lot at stake right now when just one wayward thong could wreak havoc on Australia’s agriculture industry.

This article was first published by Crikey.


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