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Foot-and-mouth fears for Australia as Indonesia grapples with outbreak

Foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Indonesia (Source: Supplied)

Holiday-makers returning from Bali pose a high risk of accidentally bringing back a severe animal disease that could devastate Australia's livestock industries, a vet says.

Indonesia is dealing with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which affects cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.

Thousands of cattle are believed to be infected across the provinces of East Java and Aceh, but the disease – one of the worst that affects animals – may have already spread further.

The outbreak occurred during Lebaran, a national holiday during which many Indonesians travel across the country.

Ross Ainsworth has worked as a vet in northern Australia for decades and is currently based in Bali.

"During the national holidays, just last week, there were large numbers of people from Surabaya and other parts of Java who had driven their cars here," he said.

Officials from the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture visit a farm in East Java where cattle have foot-and-mouth disease. (Supplied: Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture)

Dr Ainsworth said if FMD was found in Bali, the risk of Australian tourists encountering infected animals was very high.

"It would be very easy for tourists to come across cattle and there is potential for tourists to become infected simply by walking around tourist areas," he said.

"If they then go home with some infected material, say some saliva on their shoes, then they are risking the disease entering Australia, so it's pretty scary."

Fear of 'FMD highway' 

An FMD outbreak in Australia could cost the livestock sector $100 billion, according to the Cattle Council.

An Indonesian cow suspected of having foot-and-mouth disease. (Supplied)

Dr Ainsworth believes flights from Bali to Darwin last month pose the biggest risk because FMD can only survive outside a host animal for a short period and the journey only takes about three hours.

Direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin and Perth to Denpasar have all returned recently for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veteran meat industry analyst Simon Quilty agreed that if Australian tourism to Bali bounced back to its pre-COVID average of 1.3 million people per year the risk of Australian tourists bringing the disease back was severe.

"We don't want an FMD highway created here between our major airports and Bali," he said.

'Viral factories'

Bali has about 2.5 million head of cattle and 900,000 pigs.

Mr Quilty said infected pigs were of particular concern.

"Pigs … produce millions of spores that basically spread the virus and they become viral factories," he said.

FMD is believed to have entered Indonesia via goats smuggled in from Malaysia.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's Meat Price Index hit a record high in April after climbing by 16 per cent in the last 12 months.

"With that comes desperation," Mr Quilty said.

"There's no doubt that there were sickly animals in a surrounding country – at this stage it looks like it was Malaysia – that obviously have been sold into a market at a discount [where people are] desperate for cheaper protein.

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Dive Deeper:
Vet shortage puts Australia’s biosecurity at risk as foot-and-mouth disease looms
Australia's shortage of veterinarians in rural and regional areas could put national biosecurity at risk as livestock diseases such as…
Australia faces biggest biosecurity threat
Australia is facing its biggest biosecurity threat to animal agriculture in decades, the country’s chief veterinarian has warned.
Australia offers Foot and Mouth Disease vaccine support to Indonesia amid outbreak
The Australian government offers to help Indonesia pay for a Foot and Mouth Disease vaccine after an outbreak infects more…
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Climate change is happening. What you eat may mean more for our futures than the car you drive.
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
What the extraordinary funeral rituals of Tana Toraja and Trunyan in Indonesia can teach us about living a better life
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Get all your news in one place