Australian foot-and-mouth expert Dr Laurie Gleeson has warned that the highly adaptable pan-Asian strain of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), responsible for the UK outbreaks, is on the move in South-East Asia.
"FMD appeared this year in the highlands of northern Laos, which is highly unusual. The pan-Asian strain seems to be very well adapted to pigs and cattle, and it has a capability to get around. This particular strain is now in every country of South East Asia that has FMD," says Dr Gleeson.
"The outbreak of FMD in the UK and the spread of a new strain of FMD throughout South East Asia in recent times has put us on high alert."
The news comes as the Australian Animal Health Laboratory gears up its preparedness to deal with a potential outbreak of the dreaded livestock disease.
Dr Gleeson says AAHL is in the process of obtaining extra FMD test reagents, automating equipment, and training extra staff at the laboratory and at State diagnostic laboratories.
"We realise that if the worst happens and there is an outbreak of FMD in Australia, we must be prepared to deal with a high volume of samples. We will need to be able to test samples from the outbreak area, and also from areas free from the disease, so they can resume trading as quickly as possible," says Dr Gleeson.
"Our capability to quickly and accurately diagnose the first case of FMD has been high, but we recognised in the wake of the UK outbreak that we could do more to prepare for a long running outbreak of the disease," he says.
The training program and reagent purchase were made possible by the injection to AAHL of an additional $500,000 from the Federal Government.
Dr Gleeson says the laboratory is also involved with international collaborators to develop a better diagnostic test for FMD, which would allow scientists to detect animals infected with the virus, even if they have been vaccinated.
"The fact that current internationally accepted tests do not allow us to differentiate between vaccinated and infected animals is a major impediment to the use of vaccines in an outbreak situation. A meeting of major collaborators on the project will be held at AAHL in Geelong in March," he says.
"FMD is tremendously difficult to control, so we need to do everything possible to prevent FMD entering and spreading in Australia," he says.
FMD is a highly contagious viral disease of cloven-hoofed animals, such as pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and deer. The disease is spread rapidly via contact with animals, transmission via people or transport vehicles, or through the air.