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ABC News

Vet shortage puts Australia’s biosecurity at risk as foot-and-mouth disease looms

The highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease is not yet present in Australia.

Australia's shortage of veterinarians in rural and regional areas could put national biosecurity at risk as livestock diseases such as lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease inch closer, an industry spokesperson says.

Australia's livestock sector has been on high alert since Friday, when Indonesia announced the detection of more than 1,000 cases of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in cattle.

The highly contagious disease, which is not yet present in Australia, is believed to have spread from Malaysia and marks the first FMD incursion in Indonesia since 1986.

Head of veterinary and public affairs for the Australian Veterinary Association, Cristy Secombe, said Australian vets play an important biosecurity role for the agricultural sector.

"We would be very worried if there was a FMD outbreak coming into Australia, that we would not have sufficient vet capacity rurally to be able to play our role in the biosecurity response," Dr Secombe said.

"At the moment, we know vets are struggling to keep up with day-to-day work."

Indonesia has confirmed the detection of lumpy skin disease on the island of Sumatra. (Supplied: DAWE/Shutterstock)

Dr Secombe said pre-emptive control measures were needed to ensure the disease was excluded from entering the country.

"It's a really important issue. If FMD did come to Australia than it's all-hands-on-deck to make sure that we deal with the disease outbreak so the community is safe," she said.

"I think we need to scenario plan. It may require some mobilisation of veterinarians from other countries to assist."

Rural vet shortage ongoing 

Dr Secombe said the struggle to retain rural veterinarians was not isolated to Australia, but was being mirrored globally.

Locally, she said the industry has been struggling to retain veterinarians in rural and regional areas for decades, which has lead to the closure of a number of services.

"It's been recognised for a period of time that this isn't sustainable and we are now seeing effects of it as people are closing their vet businesses.

"So what this means is that [that] animal won't be getting the care that they need and it puts Australia's biosecurity at risk."

Australia's vet industry is struggling to retain graduates. (ABC News: Adrienne Francis)

One of the main drivers of the poor retention of skilled vets in the industry was renumeration, as many vets work for free to keep expenses down for the community.

"Veterinary care, like human health care, is very expensive to deliver," Dr Secombe said.

"Firstly, vets do a lot of work that is pro bono. For example, preparing for disease-risk incursion such as lumpy skin disease or doing the surveillance for biosecurity in rural and regional areas.

"Secondly, is providing first aid for animals that are unowned, so wildlife that are owned by the state.

"So you have highly skilled people who are not being renumerated as they should for their level of skill and expertise."

What if FMD reaches Australia?

Australia's chief veterinary officer, Mark Schipp, said the arrival of FMD in Indonesia greatly increased the risk to Australia's cattle, sheep, goat and pig industries.

"An estimate was done in 2013 that if we had a large-scale outbreak it would be a $50-billion cost to those industries because we would lose all of our export markets," Dr Schipp said.

Dr Schipp said that in the event of an outbreak, Australia would likely need to rely on help from other industries and departments. 

"That's always the case in any large-scale national disease outbreak. That's part of our national emergency arrangements."

On Monday, the Australian government offered Indonesia financial support to secure a vaccine to contain an outbreak of FMD.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a serious livestock disease affecting cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.  ( ABC Rural: Annie Brown )

Dr Schipp said Australia has a vaccine bank held in the UK and could call upon other countries for their vaccines as well.

"We share our vaccines with like-minded countries, like Canada, UK, US, New Zealand. We can call upon their vaccines as well."

With both lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease getting closer to Australia, Dr Schipp said he was feeling anxious. 

"[I'm] hoping that we are able to keep the risk offshore for the longest time possible," he said.

FMD can spread through close contact between animals, and be carried on animal products or short distances by the wind.

Anyone keeping or working with cattle, sheep, goats or pigs should be aware of the signs of FMD: blisters on the mouth and drooling or limping animals.

If livestock exhibit any unusual signs, people are urged to call their veterinarian or Australia's Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.