Australia has been FMD free since 1872, but it is still considered the most serious biosecurity threat to Australian agricultural industries. A generalized epidemic could cost the economy more than A $ 16 billion in the first 12 months.
Can foot-and-mouth disease really be controlled? We believe so, and we can learn a lot from how rinderpest – a very virulent rinderpest – was eradicated.
A model for eradication
Even before the United Nations’ 2011 global declaration of rinderpest free, many wondered what animal disease we might focus on next. Rinderpest was only the second virus to be eradicated in the world, after smallpox.
For centuries, rinderpest has devastated cattle and buffalo populations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It brought down the armies, caused rural famine and created inestimable hardship.
The disease was not limited by national borders: international coordination was fundamental to manage, control and finally rid the planet of the virus.
The reintroduction of rinderpest in Europe led to the creation of a coordinating authority, the World Organization for Animal Health, in 1924. When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was established in 1945, their charter to improve food and nutrition across the world could only be done by combating devastating livestock diseases such as rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease.
After decades of research and significant investment, rinderpest was isolated in only a handful of geographic areas at the end of the 1990s. The last outbreak was reported in 2001.
The success story of rinderpest makes it clear that three things are needed to eradicate an animal disease. You need political will, veterinary and local knowledge about how the disease spreads, and the right tools (such as quality diagnostic tests and vaccines) to intervene.
These factors apply to many animal diseases, so control does not need to focus on a single disease. Investing in improving veterinary services, for example, is not just about eliminating disease; it benefits animal health, the livelihoods of communities and the overall economy of a country.
Can we control and eliminate foot-and-mouth disease?
As with rinderpest, the fight against foot-and-mouth disease requires a comprehensive approach. Recent outbreaks in previously disease-free countries show that a piecemeal approach does not work: we need to control the disease at the source, in places where the virus is endemic.
But disease-free countries must also invest in the efforts of their neighbors to control and eliminate the disease. Australia is investing in neighboring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, helping them with monitoring strategies, laboratory facilities and staff training through CSIRO and AusAID. These countries are now free from foot-and-mouth disease.
Once a country is FMD free, it can profit from lucrative trade with other FMD free countries. This trade is not only about animals, milk and meat, but also genetics. But it takes millions of dollars to stay FMD free and to keep those billion dollar market opportunities open.
Meanwhile, resource-poor countries are devastated by the effects of foot-and-mouth disease: decreased quantity and quality of milk, weight loss and severe lameness. They are further crippled by empty fields, the inability to transport produce to market for sale, and the loss of available food and quality nutrients for humans.
Unfortunately, countries where such debilitating diseases circulate usually also have competing priorities in other sectors such as human health, education, governance and the maintenance of civil and political stability.
We know we have the tools, the diagnostic capacity and enough knowledge about disease transmission to control foot-and-mouth disease. So, overall, can we tackle the threat head-on in endemic environments?
Improving farm-level practices is a good first step
There is a lot of work to be done. But rather than focusing specifically on FMD eradication, countries where the disease exists could start by improving farm biosecurity in general.
They are expected to improve production practices and hygiene, thereby increasing the efficiency of milk and meat production, and improving the way they manage natural resources.
This can extend the benefits to other areas: mother and child care, nutrition and hygiene for farmers and communities around the world. Strengthening veterinary services and sharing information improves healthcare and builds trust with business partners.
If we took this approach, we would certainly reduce the effect of diseases related to production and trade, as well as a multitude of diseases that humans can contract from animals and food. Such a holistic strategy would also increase access to quality veterinary drugs and vaccines across the myriad of microbial threats, and improve the availability of high quality nutritious foods.
It is therefore not possible to focus on a single disease when embarking on the eradication or control of a disease. We need a global approach – targeted and adapted to existing social and economic conditions – to diseases that affect livelihoods, human health and global-local business opportunities.
With significant effort and investment, control and eradication is possible – not only of foot-and-mouth disease, but of all the high-impact diseases that threaten the world today and tomorrow.
This article was co-authored by Dr Juan Lubroth, Chief Veterinarian, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)