Victorian government on front foot with mock response to livestock disease that could cost country $80 billion

Victorian government on front foot with mock response to livestock disease that could cost country $80 billion

As an island continent, Australia enjoys natural geographic barriers against harmful livestock and plant diseases.

But as the volume of global trade and human traffic increases every year, the threat of an outbreak has never been greater.

“The risk of some very, very significant animal diseases is increasing across the world,” Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Graeme Cooke said.

“The risk to Australia has increased, particularly because some of these diseases have appeared in south-east Asia and will be there for some time to come.”

Dr Graeme Cooke is working to protect Australia from highly contagious animal diseases.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

At the top of the livestock list is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

Indonesia, on Australia’s northern doorstep, had an outbreak in 2022.

Some urged tourists returning from Bali to burn their footwear to avoid unwittingly bringing the virus back home.

“It’s number one on the exotic disease list for all countries around the world as their highest priority disease to control and eradicate where possible,” Agriculture Victoria’s animal health and welfare director Les Howard said.

“It can come in through the sea ports on illegally imported products such as foodstuffs.”

Professor Les Howard says FMD is the number one concern for Australia on the exotic disease list.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

On the front foot

In 2022, Indonesia also had an outbreak of lumpy skin disease, a serious viral disease that primarily affects cattle and buffalo.

The disease, carried by live animals and reproductive material, is also spread by biting insects and parasites and results in animal welfare issues and significant production losses.

These outbreaks have put Australia on high alert.

They have prompted a strengthening of disease preparedness activities between government agencies and livestock industry groups.

The Victorian government recently committed $43 million towards technology, staff training, better testing labs and other measures, including a former COVID-19 ambulance converted into a mobile field laboratory.

It also funded a recent full dress rehearsal — complete with hazardous chemical suits — of a mock outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Blood was taken from sheep as part of the mock FMD response exercise.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

The scenario involved regional government veterinarians from across Victoria enacting emergency testing procedures on cattle and sheep at two separate farms.

“It’s really trying to prepare us as much as possible if we did have an incursion of FMD or some other serious exotic disease,” Agriculture Victoria District Veterinary Officer Dr Cathy Bunter said.

“[It was about] preparing our staff, preparing our systems and making sure that we have as much in place as possible to actually protect us and to protect our industries.”

Crucially, it also tested the capability and efficiency of an emergency disease response.

Potential losses of $80b

A real-life outbreak of a disease such as FMD would paralyse Australia’s multi-billion dollar livestock industries almost overnight.

The exercise involved vets hastily taking blood samples from animals for testing.(ABC Landline: Tim Lee)

Economic modelling has calculated it would cost about $80 billion over 10 years.

“That’s largely associated with the impacts on trade in animal products from Australia and obviously that’s such an important part of our exports,” said Dr Katherine Clift, the executive director of Biosecurity Victoria.

Regional Australia would bear the bunt economically and socially.

Dr Cooke witnessed the impact of a FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom during 2001.

“It was devastating and Australia is an export-focused agricultural economy and these types of diseases do stop that trade, almost overnight,” he said.

The world has seen a large death toll of livestock from exotic diseases in recent years.

In 2018, China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, experienced an outbreak of African Swine Fever.

It is estimated more than 200 million pigs were slaughtered or culled as a result.

More recently, Australia has been on high alert against newer, more virulent strains of Avian Influenza that affect poultry and wild birds.

Dr Cooke said Australia had to approach disease preparedness in the same way it prepared for natural disasters.

“We need to make it second nature where we’re thinking in the way that Australia thinks about so many other threats, bushfires being one of them,” he said.

“I understand it’s hard to stay vigilant but we have to.”

Watch ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday or on ABC iview.

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