It’s winter in Australia and for the first time in three years, thousands of residents are flying to the Indonesian island of Bali to spend the July school holidays in the sun.
But Australian officials are increasingly concerned about what to take home and are considering advising travelers to leave their flip flops – known in Australia as flip flops – in Bali.
Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is spreading rapidly through livestock in Indonesia, and the first cases were confirmed on Tuesday in Bali, a popular tourist destination with direct flights to seven Australian cities.
“Foot-mouth disease would be catastrophic if it arrived in Australia,” said Mark Schipp, the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer, who advises the government on ways to keep the virus at bay.
FMD is harmless to humans but causes painful blisters and lesions on the mouth and legs of even-toed ungulates, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and camels, preventing them from eating and in some cases causing severe lameness and death.
The disease is considered the biggest threat to the biosecurity of Australian livestock and an outbreak could lead to mass culling of infected animals and shut down Australia’s lucrative beef export market for years to come.
“The consequences for farmers if foot-and-mouth disease invades are too painful to even consider,” said Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers’ Federation. “But it’s not just about farmers. Sweeping $80 billion from Australian GDP would be an economic disaster for everyone.”
Australia has begun increasing biosecurity checks at airports, checking luggage for meat and cheese products and warning tourists that dirt on their shoes could inadvertently trigger Australia’s first FMD outbreak in 150 years.
But one control that hasn’t been rolled out yet is foot baths — containers of potent chemicals that newcomers step in to kill spores of the disease they may be carrying on their shoes. The problem is that footwear typically worn in laid-back Bali is not compatible with standard biosecurity measures.
“A lot of people returning from Bali don’t wear boots, they wear flip flops, flip flops or sandals and you can’t really afford to get that chemical on your skin,” Schipp said.
He said officials are considering telling tourists to leave their shoes behind.
“To wear no shoes at all, or to leave the footwear behind,” Schipp said. “If you wear thongs in Bali, leave them in Bali.”
The advice has not yet become an official statement and is one of many options being considered, he added.
Foot-and-mouth disease is now spreading rapidly in Indonesia, where the first cases were reported in April. In May, Indonesian authorities had warned Australia that – along with New Zealand, Central and North America and continental Western Europe – is free from FMD.
Indonesia tried to roll out a vaccination program, but by June 27, only 58,275 of the country’s roughly 17-million-strong herd had been vaccinated. Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said in a tweet.
Schipp said the slow rollout reflects the logistical challenges in a decentralized country made up of thousands of islands.
“You can have the vaccine available at the national level, but it has to come at the provincial and district levels. And when it comes to that, the question is, how are we going to get this into animals? We have no yards. We can’t catch the cattle. We have no money for gas. We have no money for a meal allowance,’ he said.
“These are the kind of logistical issues that we’ve tried to work with them.”
The timing of the outbreak has been disastrous in Indonesia, weeks before Idul Adha, the “sacrifice of sacrifice,” when animals are typically sold in large quantities for slaughter for three days from July 10. After families pray and eat a meal together, they sacrifice livestock and distribute the meat to the poor.
Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease modeling expert at the University of Warwick, told DailyExpertNews it’s not the slaughter that dramatically increases the risk of infection, but the “significant movement of animals in the run-up to the festivals.”
“We see this in Turkey – there is a festival (where FMD is endemic) every year called Kurban, which also involves the slaughter of significant numbers of livestock, preceded by massive movements of livestock across the country and a rise in reported FMD cases. typically observed when this happens,” he told DailyExpertNews in an email.
“It is also possible that transmission occurs as a result of contact with carcasses, especially in the first few hours after slaughter, and therefore the disposal of potentially contaminated carcasses should be handled with great care,” he said.
Indonesia’s outbreak had spread to more than 330,000 animals in 21 provinces by July 7, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Thousands more doses of vaccine had arrived from France and more than 350,000 animals had been immunized.
When foot and mouth disease was diagnosed in sheep in the UK in 2001, the results were devastating. At the time, the government’s contingency plans covered an infection on 10 properties, according to a government report.
Instead, the disease spread to 57 sites before it was discovered, and then a lack of coordination slowed the rollout of emergency vaccinations. More than 6 million animals have been killed in the seven months that the virus appears to have eliminated.
The UK was re-admitted to the list of countries free of FMD the following year, but the impact went well beyond trade.
The report found that “tourism had the biggest financial impact from the outbreak, with visitors to Britain and the countryside being put off by the initial general closure of footpaths by local authorities and media images of mass burnings at the stake.”
The entire episode cost the government and private sector a total of £8 billion ($9.5 billion).
Other countries have learned lessons from the UK’s response, and if an outbreak is detected, movement restrictions are typically imposed before animals are culled and sites decontaminated.
For Australia, vaccinating animals is only an option once the virus gets in, because trading partners don’t distinguish between a vaccinated and a sick animal.
“If we vaccinated preventively, we would lose our animal health status as a foot-and-mouth disease-free country and we would lose our trade and market access,” said Schipp.
Ross Ainsworth, a 40-year-old veterinarian living in Bali, says it is too easy for tourists on the island to come into contact with livestock and bring the virus home.
“There’s livestock everywhere and that livestock will get infected and spread the virus,” he said. The virus can survive on the sole of a shoe for a few days, or longer if it’s colder, he said.
“So if you walked out of your villa and got in some contaminated saliva and got in the taxi and flew home, you might have a viable virus on your foot for another day and a half,” he said.
The National Farmers’ Federation has welcomed the increased biosecurity controls, but says the government must “continually review” safety settings and may require all inbound travelers from high-risk areas to undergo a biosafety inspection.
“Everyone should at least be questioned by a biosafety officer, if not subject to an inspection,” said Simson, the NFF president. “We also need to keep looking at footwear disinfection stations as an option,” she said.
“At all costs. We don’t want to look back and wish we had done more.”
Until potentially contaminated shoes are thrown out or foot baths become mandatory, Schipp says education is the best defense. Advertising campaigns are being launched at airports and on social media, but according to Schipp, that doesn’t mean tourists should be told to stay away from cows.
“Seeing cattle in Bali is part of the experience,” he said. “But it’s very easy to wash your hands and make sure your boots are clean before you get home.”