Sunday, August 14, 2022

One hitchhiker you don’t want to pick up

Vigilance is key if we want to escape the trauma and cost of an outbreak in NZ.
We need to bring the strict protocols we learnt under covid to efforts to keep foot-and-mouth out of the country. File photo

I’ve written in the past that the two things we should be most fearful of are viruses and meteorites.

At the time I was thinking of human viruses, given the current covid pandemic being front of mind, but recent events have reminded us that animal pandemics are yet another thing to cause justifiable concern.

Foot-and-mouth has again reared its head and this time in Indonesia. Of even more concern for us here, it has now been confirmed to have infected animals in Bali.

Just as international tourism is coming back on stream and up to a million Australian and tens of thousands of Kiwi tourists visit that holiday destination.

By all accounts, cattle and pigs wander freely among the visitors, making it possible for them to encounter infected animals and pick up the virus on their footwear.

There are no direct flights between Bali and New Zealand, but as the virus can survive outside of a host for 24 to 48 hours, there is the opportunity for it to hitch a ride to this country.

The chances are small but the impact if it happened are immense for our sector and NZ.

Foot-and-mouth has been present in several South East Asian countries for many years.

It’s good to see that Biosecurity NZ is rolling out the footmats with disinfectant for arrivals from Indonesia and that the Australian government is lifting its own biosecurity game.

Just last week, Australia detected viral fragments – which aren’t capable of infecting animals – on food products that had come in from Indonesia and China.

Food products with the actual virus attached have been implicated in outbreaks in other parts of the world in the past.

The cause of foot-and-mouth was found to be viral back in 1897.

It is a highly infectious disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals.

The virus is of no risk to humans.

In animals, it causes blisters on the mouth and feet that can be so severe, they are unable to stand or walk.

When outbreaks occur everything possible is done to contain and then eliminate the virus, but this is no easy or cheap matter.

Not only is FMD very infectious among animals, it is easily transmitted via footwear, on clothing, in fodder, on vehicles and by long-distance aerosol spread.

The United States has had nine outbreaks, mostly in the earlier half of the 20th century.

The United Kingdom had an outbreak in 1967 resulting from legally imported infected lamb from Argentina and Chile. It cost NZ$14 billion in today’s money to clean it up.

Many of us remember better the UK outbreak of 2001. It is believed that outbreak resulted from illegally imported meat scraps destined to be fed to pigs.

Six million sheep and cattle were killed to halt the disease and I can well remember the terrible footage of the pits, fires, anguish and misery.

Something that those who have had to deal with M Bovis eradication know extremely well.

The response to that outbreak was slow, which compounded the scale and cost. The total cost in today’s money amounted to $28bn to eradicate the virus.

The Australians have estimated it could cost A$80bn if they had a major event.

We have a $52bn export industry at stake and I’m not sure we could afford to spend these sort of sums to clean it up here. None of us would want to go through the trauma, not to mention the hit on our incomes and the resulting carnage on our balance sheets.

So, prevention is critical.

We already have some of the tougher biosecurity measures against foot-and-mouth incursions and it is good to hear that these measures are being stepped up at airports – and I hope ports as well.

We have shown the lengths we will go to prevent a human virus getting into the country, and I’d like to see the same diligence and scrutiny applied against this disease.

Like the Australians, we are supporting the Indonesians to try to control and hopefully eliminate the virus.

And we farmers have a responsibility as well to ensure NAIT and ASD records are accurate and current, and to be vigilant for any potential symptoms.

We might be learning to live with covid-19 but none of us ever want to deal with foot-and-mouth.

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