The last line of defence

It is more due to good management than good luck that Australia’s agriculture sector has yet to be decimated by foot-and-mouth disease, writes Tracey Porter

It is not by chance that an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), such as the one in 2001 that led to the slaughter of more than 10 million cows and sheep and brought the British agricultural and tourism sectors to their knees, has yet to occur in Australia.

Affecting cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs, FMD is a viral disease that has seven serotypes and more than 60 strains. It presents as a fever that is quickly followed by the appearance of fluid-filled blisters and lesions on the feet, tongue and mouth that ultimately leave animals lame and unable to feed or water. FMD spreads rapidly from one animal to another, especially in cool, damp climates and/or when animals are penned or housed closely together.

Estimated to have cost the UK economy more than £8b (AUD$19b) to contain, the economic implications of a similar event happening here would likely prove just as devastating with farm closures, exports blocked and decimated tourism, hospitality and food sectors.

The freeing up of global trade, porous border controls, non-compliance with animal health regulations and increasing stock movement, has meant FMD remains a serious threat to livestock producers.

Minor outbreaks of FMD are believed to have occurred in Australia in 1801, 1804, 1871 and 1872. However, Australia has now been free of FMD—considered the most significant biosecurity threat to our livestock industries—for 145 years.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) says that even a small outbreak, controlled within three months, would cost a major livestock-exporting country like Australia around $7.1b while a larger 12-month outbreak would result in direct economic losses to the livestock and meat processing sector of around $16b.

Yet despite the implementation of regional control programs and the fact Australia doesn’t allow imports of any susceptible live animals, semen, uncooked meat or unprocessed dairy products from FMD-affected areas such as Asia, Africa and parts of South America, the animal population here remains susceptible.

The DAWR says Australia has detailed contingency plans in place and a comprehensive whole-of-government approach to managing animal health emergencies, all of which are designed to ensure resources from a wide range of agencies are available.

While the department collaborates with individual states and territory authorities to coordinate national responses to animal health emergencies, veterinarians such as Dr Jillian Kelly operating at the coalface of the country’s biosecurity surveillance programs shoulder the greatest responsibility.

It was just four years after the British pandemic took a hold that Dr Kelly graduated from the University of Sydney with first-class honours and the Don Kerr Veterinary Student Award for excellence in cattle medicine.

Even a small outbreak [of FMD], controlled within three months, would cost a major livestock-exporting country like Australia around $7.1 billion.—Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

But it was under the guise of her current role as Animal Biosecurity & Welfare team leader at Central West Local Land Services that the 34-year-old found herself invited to the Himalayas to gain firsthand exposure to the disease.

Run by the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease, the FMD Real-time Training Program is an intensive five-day course run in Nepal—where the disease is endemic— for a select group of animal health officers.

Part of an ongoing program designed to strengthen Australia’s early warning and response capacity, the course gives participants practical experience in FMD lesion identification and ageing; lesion sampling; active, real-time FMD outbreak investigation, and active, real-time consideration of appropriate disease control measures such as vaccination.

Dr Kelly says her group also heard from the Nepalese and Australian governments as to their approach to FMD, and how each would respond in the event of an outbreak.

“This was by far and away the best training I have ever been to—there is no substitute for seeing and doing things in real life and in real time. We got to go out into villages that had active FMD cases, suit up using appropriate personal protective equipment gear, take a history from the farmer and villagers and take samples to send to the laboratory.

“We then used that information to create time lines and identify where the disease came from and where it is likely to have spread to. It was fascinating!”

Dr Kelly’s knowledge of the disease made her somewhat paranoid about the risk of spreading it once back on home soil so her suitcase was considerably lighter upon returning to Australia.

“I left a few sets of clothes in Nepal. I also washed all of the clothes I brought home in citric acid. I could not visit a farm for seven days after returning to Australia [while] customs also asked me some tough questions on the way back in.”

Growing up in Coonamble on the central-western plains of NSW, Dr Kelly says she always knew rural mixed practice was where she belonged.

Her first job was as a mixed veterinary practitioner in Roma, south-west Queensland, where her caseload was largely centred around cattle, horses and small animals. She spent a year in the UK as a locum before heading back to mixed practice in Australia, eventually moving to Local Land Services, where for the past six years she has been helping local producers in disease surveillance and animal biosecurity.

First exposed to the vital importance of biosecurity work while still at university, Dr Kelly says she never fully appreciated how important it is to farmers, tourists and consumers until starting her role with the state government.

“Biosecurity is everything from shutting the farm gate, to knowing where your hay or replacement stock come from, to keeping records, noticing signs of illness and calling the vet, right up to border patrol and customs.”—Dr Jillian Kelly, Animal Biosecurity & Welfare team leader, Central West Local Land Services

“Biosecurity is everything from shutting the farm gate, to knowing where your hay or replacement stock come from, to keeping records, noticing signs of illness and calling the vet, right up to border patrol and customs. And every little bit is important. I have done many courses through the NSW Department of Primary Industries on emergency and exotic disease diagnosis and response. We also do in-house training once a year where we [stage] a mock response to an exotic disease detection.”

Due to prolonged droughts in recent years and the need to supplement livestock feed, Dr Kelly says she sees a lot of issues related to nutrition in the course of her work. This prompted her to study further in ruminant nutrition and, as a result, she sat the Membership Examinations at the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in Animal Nutrition (Ruminant) in 2015.

Dr Kelly says what she loves best about her work is the ability to effect positive, holistic outcomes with scale.

“I am usually helping the whole herd or flock in terms of disease, welfare and productivity, as well as the farmer’s profitability and often lifestyle. This type of work allows me to get to know my landholders really well and develop really strong relationships with them. These sorts of relationships are invaluable in terms of disease notification and helps the state’s surveillance network.”

Her least favourite part of the job has to do with her role as stock inspector where she is sometimes required to quarantine farms.

“This can be controversial and quite stressful at times. I also dislike blood sampling wooly rams.”

Dr Kelly says that while she has diagnosed all manner of “weird and wonderful” things during her six years with the Local Land Services, the most common endemic diseases she comes across are ovine brucellosis in rams and vibriosis in cattle. Poor biosecurity practices are almost always the reason for the problem, she says.

“These endemic disease investigations and the farmer education that stems from them—get an animal health statement, quarantine new arrivals, get a vet to check them and fix your fences—are a good lesson for exotic animal disease preparedness.”

Yet despite her past experiences and training, Dr Kelly’s first confrontation with FMD still came as a bit of a shock.

“I was really surprised by how non-exciting the lesions looked. The animals we examined could have been mistaken for having scabby mouth (in sheep), or woody tongue (in cattle) at first glance. It has taught me to be extra vigilant when examining livestock back at home and to always consider FMD.

“It also surprised me that despite Nepalese and Australian farming conditions being extremely different, the risk factors for getting and spreading FMD were very similar—buying livestock of questionable origin at markets, stray animals moving between farms, and people handling livestock before moving onto the next farm without washing their hands, boots and equipment.”

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