Protecting industry from animal disease

An outbreak of any emergency animal disease in Australia is likely to have severe economic and social consequences, not unlike those experienced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A control program for a highly contagious disease would require measures such as livestock standstills, which could include:

  • preventing movement of animals
  • vehicles and fodder off their property of origin
  • detection and humane slaughter of affected and in-contact animals and
  • biosecure disposal of carcasses.

Impact on economy and livestock owners

The current estimate is that a small outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in Australia, controlled in 3 months, would cost around $7.1 billion. A larger outbreak taking 12 months to control would cost up to $16 billion.

From the perspective of an animal or property owner, the outbreak of an emergency disease is likely to be personally devastating, and catastrophic with respect to business interruption.

The Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade (DITT) is the responsible agency in the Northern Territory (NT) for handling an outbreak of animal disease. The agency works with a number of key partners across all levels of government and industry.

Background

As an island nation with tightly controlled borders, Australia is relatively free of notifiable animal diseases.

Notifiable diseases are those that pose a threat to livestock production industries and could have a major impact on international trade, such as FMD and African swine fever. Maintenance of this disease-free status provides producers with enhanced access to international export markets.

The Australian system of notifiable disease reporting and investigation functions through coordinated local, state, national and international surveillance and response systems.

Such systems require the cooperation of animal owners and private veterinarians with state and federally employed veterinarians.

Vigilance, awareness and reporting of unusual disease events and presentations leads to detailed disease investigation and collation of data that is reported through national and international systems.

Australia and the World Organisation for Animal Health

Australia is one of 182 member countries of the international government agency, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Some of the objectives of the OIE include:

  • collection, analysis and dissemination of global animal disease information
  • protection of international livestock trade through agreements on animal health standards
  • provision of expertise in the control of animal diseases.

To find out more, go to the OIE website.

Australian government biosecurity agencies are required to submit animal health information to the OIE on a quarterly basis. Data is loaded into the World Animal Health Information System (WAHIS), which is used as an early warning and management tool for the global detection and monitoring of notifiable diseases.

State and territory biosecurity agencies record data concerning suspicious disease notifications and notifiable disease exclusions.

Animal health reporting in the NT

In the NT, this work is the responsibility of veterinary and livestock biosecurity officers from the Livestock Biosecurity Branch of DITT.

The department reports this data to the federal government agency Animal Health Australia (AHA). AHA collates the data and manages the national database for animal health surveillance data (NAHIS).

To find out more, go to the AHA website and the NAHIS database.

AHA reports notable findings directly to WAHIS and to national and other international stakeholders through the Animal Health Surveillance Quarterly and Animal Health in Australia annual reports.

Find out more about the quarterly and annual reports on the AHA website.

Everyone who works with animals is an important frontline worker with respect to Australian animal biosecurity responses.

Recognition, detection and early reporting of unusual or novel disease events, to private or government veterinarians, is critical to our capacity to provide rapid response and control measures.

Disease control through accurate diagnosis, timely treatment and limiting disease spread is vital if we are to minimise economic damage to livestock industries and retain access to export markets.

How a disease is declared as notifiable

Notifiable diseases for the NT are declared under the Livestock Act 2008.

The disease list for the NT follows the national list, agreed to by the national Animal Health Committee (AHC), and also includes some locally significant tropical diseases.

AHC members include:

  • Australian, state and territory chief veterinary officers
  • representatives from the CSIRO Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (formerly Australian Animal Health Laboratory)
  • the Australian Government Department of Agriculture
  • AHA
  • Wildlife Health Australia
  • New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries.

To find out more about the AHC, go to the Australian Government's Department of Agriculture website.

The national list is based on diseases that are notifiable to the OIE.

Some endemic diseases that cause significant production loss (such as cattle tick) or are important for international export certification purposes (such as bluetongue) are included in national surveillance projects.

The aim of ongoing surveillance for endemic disease is to ensure early detection of unusual disease patterns, unexpected disease outbreaks or diseases of public health significance.

Emergency animal diseases

Emergency animal diseases are those that could seriously damage the Australian economy, environment or livestock industry.

They could be brought in from other countries or emerge as new diseases. For example, African swine fever could infect Australian pigs, if they were provided with illegally imported virus-contaminated foods. Australia has strict quarantine and inspection processes in place to limit such risks, but no system is completely leak-proof.

Therefore, our system of disease preparedness also relies on the vigilance of animal owners and industry workers.

Australia has a coordinated national response plan for control and eradication of emergency animal diseases. Find out more about emergency animal disease on the AHA website.

NT veterinary officers and livestock biosecurity officers are trained to investigate and respond to outbreaks of emergency animal diseases.

Report an emergency animal disease

Alternatively, if you suspect an emergency animal disease, call the national EAD Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

The hotline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

In the NT, you can call the hotline or contact your local livestock biosecurity or veterinary officer, who will inform the CVO and take steps to initiate a disease investigation. Find out more about reporting a notifiable disease on the NT Government website.

Information for veterinarians

Veterinarians should suspect the presence of notifiable disease in any situation where there are any of the following indicators:

  • abnormal morbidity/mortality rates of any animal species, including wild or captive birds
  • rapid spread of disease
  • any disease that affects multiple species
  • cloven-hoofed animals that have ulcers, erosions or blisters around the feet, mouth or teats, and/or they are lame and/or drooling excessively
  • multiple deep, fly-struck wounds
  • a sudden, unexplained drop in production.

A registered veterinarian who fails to report a suspected notifiable within the prescribed time, commits an offence under the Livestock Act 2008, and could be liable to prosecution.

If you suspect a notifiable disease

Private veterinarians, who commence a disease investigation that leads to a notification, should collect a thorough clinical history before contacting the department.

If the CVO suspects an emergency disease, an NT government biosecurity team may be sent to further the investigation and collect samples.

Veterinarians who deal with livestock need to carry sufficient disinfectant supplies and PPE to decontaminate themselves, their equipment and their vehicles before leaving a property if a notifiable disease is suspected.

Workshops

Veterinarians from the Livestock Biosecurity Branch run regular workshops for veterinarians, vet nurses and producers, to refresh skills and awareness around notifiable diseases of animals. Keep an eye on the Biosecurity Northern Territory Facebook group.

More information

More information on sample collection for specific diseases can be obtained by contacting the Berrimah Veterinary Laboratory on 08 8999 2049.

You can also read the Australian Government’s field guide on emergency animal diseases. To find out more, go to the Australian Government's outbreak website.


Last updated: 26 May 2021

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