Foot-and-mouth disease Australia: what is FMD and what happens if it enters the country?

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<span>Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

In 2001, the UK was transfixed by grim daily news as government authorities tried to shut down an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Piles of destroyed cattle, representing hundreds of years of breeding in some cases, were set alight in fields across the nation, while villages were locked down and regional economies crippled as districts tried to halt the disease’s spread.

Now, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is close to Australia’s northern border following a recent outbreak in Indonesian cattle in May.

Related: Foot-and-mouth disease: Australian government backs electronic tagging for sheep

Despite the efforts of the Indonesian government, it has spread to Bali, a popular destination for Australian tourists.

State and federal authorities as well as Australian farmers are on alert for the disease, which could cost the country $80bn, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

FMD could cripple Australian livestock industries as well as shut down export markets and require the slaughter of animals. This is what you need to know.

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What is foot-and-mouth disease and how does it spread?

FMD affects cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs. It causes blisters in and around the mouth area and infected animals may drool or limp.

The virus is excreted through breath, saliva, mucus, milk and faeces but it can take up to four days for animals to show signs of the disease. Animals can be infected by inhaling, ingesting or direct contact with another animal, such as touching noses over a fence.

The virus can also spread on wool, hair, grass or straw and by the wind. Any mud or manure sticking to footwear, clothing, livestock equipment or vehicle tyres can also spread the disease.

It most commonly spreads during the movement of animals, for example between farms or from farms to sale yards and processing facilities.

Pigs are “amplifying hosts”, excreting very large quantities of virus from their breath. Animals can carry the virus for months or years after apparent recovery.

Sheep can have mild symptoms but this also makes them an important source of infection if the disease is not picked up early.

Animals can recover but there is no treatment or cure.

Can FMD spread to humans?

Human infections are very rare and do not result in serious disease. But we can carry the virus in our nose for up to 24 hours and infect animals.

FMD should not be confused with hand, foot-and-mouth disease commonly seen in children. The two diseases are different and are caused by different organisms.

What is the history of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia?

There have been minor outbreaks of possible FMD in Australia in 1801, 1804, 1871 and 1872.

But there have been outbreaks globally, including in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. Different strains of virus tend to dominate in different parts of the globe. The UK suffered a major outbreak in 2001 which cost the economy £8bn.

What happens if foot-and-mouth enters Australia?

According to the federal department of agriculture, the probability of “an internationally notifiable outbreak of FMD” occurring within the next five years in Australia has been increased from 9% to 11.6% (with a range of 3%-20.5%).

The policy for foot-and-mouth disease response across the country, governed by the Ausvetplan disease manual, would mean infected properties would be quarantined within at least a 3km radius.

Related: Foot and mouth disease could devastate Australia’s economy. Here’s what can be done

Animals on infected premises and “potentially on dangerous contact premises” would be humanely destroyed and all carcasses and contaminated products buried or burnt.

As Australian farms are more widely spaced, the scenes would be less concentrated than those seen in the UK in 2001, but even the smallest outbreak could shut down exports and see regional destruction of herds.

Trials are being undertaken to investigate the possibility of composting carcasses and contaminated products.

Will it affect supply of meat and milk in Australia?

Matt Dalgleish, an agricultural analyst with Thomas Elder Markets, says depending on the size of the outbreak, Australians could see a drop in meat and milk production.

Alternatively, because an outbreak would halt export markets, an increased supply of meat and milk could come onto the domestic market with subsequent effect on prices.

Beef is currently Australia’s biggest agricultural export, with 70% of beef sold overseas. Some 95% of Australian mutton (sheep meat) is sold to export as well as 65% of Australian lamb.

“We would lose access to export markets straight away so the producers not impacted by a cull would need to sell domestically, which could see [downward] pressure on the price,” Dalgleish says.

How can travellers ensure they don’t spread the disease?

Tourists and returning travellers should make sure all clothing, footwear and equipment has been thoroughly cleaned, particularly of mud, soil and manure. That includes mountain bikes and sporting equipment, particularly if the gear has been used in rural areas, markets and zoos or near susceptible animals.

Declare all meat products, dairy products and souvenirs and declare if you have been in a rural area or in contact with farm animals in the previous 30 days.

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