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Foot-and-mouth disease threat looms – Expert Q&A

A highly infectious disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals like cattle could upend New Zealand’s economy if it crosses our border.

Cases of foot-and-mouth disease detected in Indonesia in May, and virus fragments found at the Australian border in July have caused authorities here to step up their work at the border.

The SMC asked experts about the disease, the risks of an outbreak here, and what our response would be. 

Associate Professor Carolyn Gates, Veterinary Epidemiology & Education, Massey University, comments:

How serious is foot-and-mouth disease for cattle?

“Almost every cow that gets exposed to foot-and-mouth will get sick from the virus with many developing painful blisters in their mouth and skin around their hooves that causes them to stop eating and become lame. Although most adult cattle will recover within a couple weeks, the fatality rate can be quite high in calves. Foot-and-mouth is a serious disease because it spreads rapidly and affects may different livestock species including cattle, sheep, goats, deer, llamas, alpacas, and pigs. The production losses for livestock industries during an outbreak can be very high, which is why there are a lot of international regulations and procedures in place to stop it spreading to countries that are currently foot-and-mouth free.”

How does foot-and-mouth affect farmers?

“We’ve seen from outbreaks worldwide that foot-and-mouth takes a major mental toll on farmers as well as all of the other professionals involved in the outbreak response including veterinary teams, animal health officials, diagnostic laboratory technicians, epidemiologists, and policy-makers. It is devastating to watch your animals get culled to prevent others from getting sick especially when you have spent years carefully improving the genetics of your herd. Then there is the longer-term uncertainty around when the outbreak will end and how long the restrictions on international trade will last so it could be months to potentially years before you can get back to business as usual.”

How does foot-and-mouth disease spread?

“Foot-and-mouth is a highly infectious and stable virus that can survive for days to weeks in the environment depending on temperature, humidity, and sunlight. This means the virus can easily spread long distances through movements of animals, people, vehicles, equipment, and feed products between farms. We also know that there is a high rate of local spread between neighbouring farms from windborne and waterborne transmissions as well as other vectors like birds, wildlife, and insects that can physically transport the virus.”

What are your thoughts on the risk of foot-and-mouth disease arriving in the country? Is there anything more that could be done to keep it out?

“New Zealand is lucky in many respects when it comes to managing the risks of infectious disease outbreaks because we are a geographically isolated island and therefore have a lot more control over what crosses our borders. We have excellent biosecurity measures in place around importing live animals and animal products for commercial supply chains so the risk from those sources is very low. However, now that the borders are opening up again, we are likely to be getting a lot more tourists from areas of the world where foot-and-mouth is widespread in their livestock populations. This means they can potentially be bringing the virus into New Zealand on their clothes and footwear or through contaminated food products that they don’t declare at customs. The danger is if they then visit tourist hotspots or go on tramps where they are in contact with New Zealand livestock. This is a really difficult risk pathway to control because many tourists just don’t know or just don’t care about their potential role in bringing foot-and-mouth disease into the country.”

Are there any lessons we could take from our recent efforts to eradicate M. bovis and Covid-19?

“Both diseases have highlighted the importance of early detection and contract tracing. The sooner we can identify and draw the boundaries around an infectious disease outbreak, the easier it is to contain and control. For livestock owners, this means notifying your veterinarian or MPI if you are concerned about your animals, keeping up-to-date records of animals, people, equipment, and feed moving across the farm boundary.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Axel Heiser, Principal Scientist, Infectious Diseases Team, AgResearch, comments:

Can foot-and-mouth disease be treated or vaccinated against?

“No treatments for infected animals are currently available.

“Around the world inactivated, wild-type virus vaccines are used to control foot-and-mouth outbreaks. They are produced using large amounts of infectious foot-and-mouth viruses, which bears the risk of virus escape from manufacturing facilities or incomplete inactivation during the manufacturing process. Many attempts to develop better vaccines for foot-and-mouth that are not inactivated virus have failed to induce sterile immunity.”

What research is being done into foot-and-mouth disease?

“Due to biosafety concerns, there has been no research on live foot-and-mouth virus in New Zealand. However, AgResearch’s Animal Health Solution Team are among those experts prepared to assist the lead biosecurity agency, the Ministry for Primary Industries, with foot-and-mouth eradication efforts, including the development and validation of tests.

“The more research that can be done in the infectious disease space, the better we will be prepared for any highly damaging disease outbreaks.”

These comments are excerpted from a recent Q&A.

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Mary van Andel, Chief Veterinary Officer, Ministry for Primary Industries, comments:

How serious is foot-and-mouth disease for cattle?

“Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly transmissible, viral disease that affects all cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and deer. Cloven-hoofed animals are those with divided hooves.

“Animals infected with foot-and-mouth may initially show fever, drooling and reluctance to move. The disease also causes fluid filled blisters (vesicles) to form on the lips, tongue, palate, coronary bands and teats of infected animals. These blisters then burst and leave raw, painful ulcers that take up to 10 days to heal. Infected animals spread the disease very rapidly and although it rarely kills adult animals, young animals may die. Recovery is often slow and return to full production may not occur.”

How does it affect farmers?

“There have been no cases in New Zealand, but foot-and-mouth disease is our largest biosecurity threat. An outbreak would have a significant impact on animals, farmers, primary industries, and the New Zealand economy.

“The current model estimates it would cost the economy $16 billion over four to five years. Biosecurity New Zealand is currently updating that modelling. The disease causes severe production losses at the animal and herd level, but it is the loss of access to international markets for animal products and the effects of that on the whole primary sector that will be the most damaging to the economy.”

How does foot-and-mouth disease spread?

“The most likely route of introduction of foot-and-mouth into New Zealand would be through illegally imported contaminated meat and that meat being fed to pigs.

“Foot-and-mouth spreads quickly and animals can spread disease before showing any clinical signs. In the unlikely event that foot-and-mouth arrives in New Zealand, many farms might be infected before we confirm the first case, especially as some species of animals do not show clear clinical signs (for example sheep).

“Once foot-and-mouth disease is introduced into an animal population, it can be transmitted in a variety of ways, the most common being direct contact with an infected animal. Once infected, animals are capable of spreading high numbers of viral particles to other animals and into the environment.

“While the disease is not a food safety concern and does not cause disease in humans, it is possible for a person to spread the virus between susceptible animals. The disease also can be spread when susceptible animals come into contact with feed, feeding utensils, vehicles, clothing, or holding facilities contaminated with the virus.

“Early detection of foot-and-mouth (or any exotic animal disease) is important for it to be successfully eradicated. Livestock owners should remain vigilant for signs or suspicion of the disease and report them immediately to their veterinarian or to the Exotic Pest and Disease Hotline (0800 80 99 66). The faster the disease is detected, the sooner its spread can be controlled (primarily through stopping animal movements), and the disease can be eradicated.”

What are your thoughts on the risk of foot-and-mouth disease arriving in the country? Is there anything more that could be done to keep it out?

“New Zealand has stringent biosecurity measures against foot-and-mouth. Even if the outbreak in Indonesia has not created significantly greater risk of incursion to New Zealand, the size of the economic and social impact should foot-and-mouth arrive means that we must always remain vigilant about this disease. Our biosecurity systems have always been focused on keeping foot-and-mouth out, but where there are new outbreaks, it’s right to be flexible and make changes.

“For this reason, MPI has ramped up biosecurity measures to ensure all travellers do their part to keep foot-and-mouth out of New Zealand. We have 100% x-ray of all baggage at international airports and targeting and questioning of anyone who has been in contact with animals overseas. Anyone who was in contact with livestock in Indonesia, or in any country where foot-and-mouth is present, should stay away from farms and animals in New Zealand for one week after arriving back in the country.

“The risk of introduction of foot-and-mouth virus into New Zealand in legally imported animals and animal products is managed through robust measures we have in place pre-border and at the border, that are based on risk analyses and assessed when risk overseas changes. New Zealand doesn’t accept uncooked meat from countries with foot-and-mouth disease and we have strict controls for all imported animal products.

“In New Zealand, it’s illegal to feed pigs untreated meat or waste that might have contacted raw meat. These products must be cooked for at least an hour at 100 degrees Celsius. Another essential activity is record keeping of animal movements. There is legislation in place under the NAIT act for recording cattle and deer movements and all farmers should have robust biosecurity plans in place on their farms.

“We are providing regular updates to our primary sector partners and the country’s private veterinarians. Livestock sector groups are ramping up awareness campaigns with their members and farmer networks. Anyone who sees their pigs, goats, alpacas, llamas, cattle, sheep or deer display clinical signs that could be foot-and-mouth , including high fever, mouth and feet blisters, or erosions and lameness, they should call their vet or Biosecurity New Zealand’s exotic pest and disease hotline on 0800 80 99 66.”

How would a foot-and-mouth incursion be similar or different to our recent efforts to eradicate M. bovis and Covid-19?

“We have a comprehensive suite of plans to manage an outbreak of foot-and-mouth, in the unlikely event it occurred here. A lot of work has been undertaken to understand and prepare for a response of this magnitude that would involve all of Government, sector organisations and companies, iwi, private veterinarians, farmers, and communities.

“A dedicated foot-and-mouth taskforce has been established within MPI to enhance those operational response plans, incorporating what has been learned from recent emergencies such as Covid-19 and the biosecurity response to the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis.”

Can we vaccinate our animals to prevent it taking hold here?

“While there are vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease, it is not feasible to pre-emptively vaccinate. There are multiple strains of foot-and-mouth, and the vaccine used needs to be specific to the strain encountered to be protective. Our ability to maintain our current trade advantage is based on being free of foot-and-mouth, not free with vaccination.”

Would we vaccinate if there was an outbreak?

“We have several hundred thousand vaccines available for a foot-and-mouth outbreak which are currently stored in a vaccine bank in the UK for exclusive New Zealand use. The bank has close links with Australia, the UK, the US and Canada. Arrangements were updated this year. We can activate the bank as soon as we need to.

“We might consider the use of vaccines to slow the spread of disease– but that would be dependent on the nature and scale of the outbreak.”

Dr van Andel is employed by the Ministry of Primary Industries.

Dr Stu Hayes, Lecturer, Tourism, University of Otago, comments:

How would a foot-and-mouth outbreak affect tourism?

“As the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease crisis in Britain highlighted, inadequate planning and crisis management can cause a reduction in trade, job losses and damage to a destination’s image. This matters, because destination image is one of the leading factors influencing tourists’ decisions. Accurate or not, negative images in the media can directly affect demand.

“Reviews of the UK’s crisis highlighted several key planning and crisis management failings that contributed to the severity of the impacts felt across the tourism sector. These failings included: a lack of appreciation of the potential impacts of foot-and-mouth for the tourism sector; a lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders from the tourism sector in crisis planning for a foot-and-mouth outbreak; and a lack of an integrated communication strategy to counter media tendencies to exaggerate the impacts.

“To help limit the potential impacts of a foot-and-mouth outbreak for the New Zealand tourism sector, the government should consider several urgent actions:

  • model the potential impacts of foot-and-mouth on the tourism sector, including potential job losses, loss of tourism trade and potential impacts on destination image and reputation
  • prepare crisis management plans with the full engagement of key actors in the tourism sector, including relevant ministries and sector bodies
  • establish an integrated communication approach and offer public relations training for tourism enterprises to help maintain a positive destination image in the event of a foot-and-mouth outbreak.

“As the 2001 UK foot-and-mouth crisis demonstrated, failure to act could be disastrous for the tourism sector in New Zealand.”

These comments are excerpted from a recent Conversation piece.

No conflict of interest.