Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)
A good place to begin is often ‘what is it’? So, here we go - Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a severe and highly contagious viral disease of livestock. Now that we know it is a virus, why is it so important to keep it out of New Zealand? FMD has a significant economic impact that deeply affects the production of livestock and disrupts regional and international trade in animals and animal products - more on this later.
So, what animals does it affect? Luckily, not all animals are susceptible to the virus. FMD only affects cloven-hooved (foot divided in two) animals. This includes cows, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, alpacas, and llamas. The virus does not affect humans, rodents, cats, dogs, or horses.
You may be wondering, how it affects these animals and to what extent… Well, let’s just start by saying, it’s very bad. FMD is characterised by fever and blister-like sores on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on teats and between the hooves. The disease causes severe production losses, and while most affected animals recover, the disease often leaves them weakened and debilitated. The affected animals become lame and often do not want to eat or cannot access a food source.
New Zealand’s pasture-based farming depends on animals being able to walk to feed which then requires grazing. As FMD causes both lameness and blistering of the tongue, this can make survival very difficult for the affected animals. This alone is an excellent reason why we do not want FMD entering the country, but this is not the only reason. New Zealand exports a lot of animal products and our trading partners do not want animal products (dairy, meat, and fibre) from countries that have FMD. These countries often require a specific declaration of country freedom from FMD on certification accompanying the consignments. This would result in a significant reduction in international trade of these products and possibly an economic disaster for our country.
If you are thinking that’s bad, wait until you hear this. FMD is mainly spread by live animals and animal products such as frozen meat, but it can also be transmitted as an infected aerosol via air currents. Locally, it can be spread via infected yards or buildings and through contaminated feed, hay, clothing, footwear, and equipment (so most things). If FMD became established in New Zealand it would be very difficult to eradicate, as it would likely spread to feral pigs, deer and goats. Ready for a tiny bit of good news? The virus itself does have a couple of weaknesses, it is susceptible to warm temperatures, desiccation (drying out) and changes in pH.
So, could we eradicate it if it arrived in New Zealand? There is hope if we catch it early enough, but eradication means just that. There would be a mass slaughter of affected and potentially affected animals. This wouldn’t be like the control measures used for TB, Brucellosis or M.Bovis - where (infected) animals were removed from the farm for slaughter at approved premises. An FMD response would see total herd slaughter of all infected and all susceptible animals on the property. Animals would be slaughtered on properties surrounding an infected place to create buffer zones so the numbers could grow very quickly!
The good news is that there are measures in place at the New Zealand border to hopefully prevent this from happening in New Zealand. Imports of live animals and animal products are prohibited from many countries because of their FMD status. Currently, FMD is in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and a limited area of South America. Arriving air and sea passengers are asked to declare animal products (that may carry FMD), occupations, countries visited, if they have been in areas where FMD may be present and if they are carrying equipment that has been used with animals.
Clean and dry is the standard for all inanimate objects (both new and used) entering New Zealand. Import cargo arriving by air and sea is targeted via alerts placed in the data stream that is part of the importing process.
In summary, if there is one disease where the fence at the top of the cliff is more important than the ambulance waiting at the bottom it is this one. FMD is easily spread, horrendous to eradicate, difficult to eliminate completely, and economically disastrous for a country whose economy is dependent on pasture-based farming. So please do your bit to help the cause and let’s make sure New Zealand remains FMD free!