Foot and mouth disease could be 'doomsday' for New Zealand, farming sector on red alert

By Emile Donovan for The Detail for RNZ

New Zealand’s farming sector is on red alert for the highly contagious disease that could devastate the livestock industry.  We’ve never had an outbreak in this country but can we stop it from sneaking past the border indefinitely?

In May of this year, Indonesia confirmed its first case of foot-and-mouth disease – or FMD – since the nation was declared FMD-free in 1986.

Given Indonesia’s proximity to Australia – one of our biggest trading partners – and, indeed, to Aotearoa itself, this rang biosecurity alarm bells.

FMD is a huge threat to New Zealand’s agricultural sector. Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor described the spread of the disease here as “doomsday” for the farming community.

On today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to associate professor of veterinary epidemiology Carolyn Gates about what FMD is and does; what precautions New Zealand is taking; and what impact it might have if the disease breaches our borders.

What is FMD?

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a contagious virus, and affects cloven-hooved animals, like cows, pigs, sheet, goats, and deer.

It causes blisters and sores to form around the mouth, muzzle, feet and teats of these animals. This leads to knock-on effects, such as animals refusing to eat or walk about due to the pain of doing so.

FMD does not affect the safety of products that come from these animals – you won’t get sick drinking milk from a cow infected with FMD – but it drastically reduces production.

It is different to the unrelated hand-foot-and-mouth disease humans contract: foot-and-mouth disease infects humans extremely rarely. 

How does it spread?

Foot-and-mouth disease is extremely contagious. It was be spread within herds through other animals contacting saliva or discharge from the blisters of infected animals. It can also be spread through breathing, mucous, and faeces. Even rodents living in a farm with animals infected by FMD can spread the virus from place to place.

Humans can do this too: FMD lives on surfaces for a long time, and the virus can attach itself to clothing.

When FMD is discovered in a country, it is extremely difficult and costly to eradicate. Often, wholescale culling is the most viable option.

An outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 cost the country billions of pounds and saw millions of cattle slaughtered. 

Why is this in the news?

Earlier this year, Indonesia announced cases of FMD in that country. While FMD is widespread in some parts of the world, Indonesia had been FMD-free for nearly 40 years. New Zealand has never had an outbreak. 

Because Indonesia is prominent in international trade and tourism, it’s possible the disease spreads to other FMD-free countries.

In July, it was reported trace FMD fragments had been found on pork product imported into Australia, but thus far that country has avoided a full-scale outbreak.

How has New Zealand reacted?

As an isolated island nation, New Zealand has several natural advantages.

We also have the recent experience with mycoplasma bovis, which means biosecurity systems are sharpened and awareness among farmers of the importance of record-keeping is acute.

In July, agriculture minister Damien O’Connor announced a new awareness campaign stressing the importance of vigilance for New Zealanders travelling to Indonesia; providing special disinfectant foot mats for arrivals from Indonesia to step onto; tailored questioning and baggage search processes for people from countries with FMD; and setting up an FMD readiness taskforce.

This is in addition to funding boosts for biosecurity which have happened over the past few years.

Where to from here?

Carolyn Gates says despite the huge stakes – an outbreak could affect tens of thousands of jobs, and potentially cost the country billions in direct and indirect costs – New Zealand is relatively well-positioned at this point.

“We are lucky. We have been able to watch how the rest of the world has dealt with this.

“We’ve got a good idea of our resources, we’ve got good people we can tap into to help with an outbreak response. We’re probably doing a reasonably good job.

“There are some areas we can improve on – increasing recording of movements and personnel – but overall, it’s as much as we can hope for, at this stage.”

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Foot and mouth disease could be 'doomsday' for New Zealand, farming sector on red alert