Bali records ‘zero’ foot and mouth cases but experts say disease lurks

Singapore: Indonesia is reporting zero cases of foot and mouth on Bali but experts warn the holiday island is far from free of the dreaded livestock disease that threatens to infiltrate Australia to devastating effect.

The Albanese government has raised biosecurity measures at airports to their “strongest ever” levels to prevent the virus spreading from Indonesia and causing an outbreak in Australia that could shut down the $27 billion live export trade and cost the economy as much as $80 billion.

An Indonesian Agriculture Ministry official prepares to use a blowgun to administer a vaccine to a cow at a farm in Denpasar, Bali, last week.Credit:AP

Foot and mouth has taken off across the South-east Asian archipelago over the past two months, spreading to 22 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces after breaking out for the first time in the country in three decades.

Much concern in Australia has centred around Bali, to where 8500 Australians are travelling each day. Farmers and livestock industry figures fear travellers could inadvertently bring in the virus on their shoes or via animal products when they return home.

According to Indonesia’s foot and mouth taskforce, there have been no active cases on Bali for the past four days and the last 65 of the 551 cattle found to be infected on the island this month were slaughtered on Monday.

Officers spray disinfectant in a shed at a Yogyakarta cattle farm where foot and mouth has previously been detected.Credit:Getty Images

However, with only 2 per cent of Bali’s 927,053 heads of cattle and other livestock having been vaccinated, transmission from the tourism hotspot to Australia still poses a significant risk.

“The meaning of zero case is that we don’t have a case but it does not mean we’re free from the virus,” said taskforce member Professor I Ketut Puja, the head of the Bali branch of the Indonesian Veterinary Medical Association.

Professor Peter Windsor, an expert in foot and mouth control at the University of Sydney, said “you can almost guarantee that Bali still has FMD”.

“It’s far too insidious a disease,” said Windsor, who is just back from Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, for talks about the crisis. Massive under-reporting was a major issue.

“Especially if there has been some slaughtering out, there might be a disincentive [for people] not to have their cattle slaughtered.

“I’d be surprised if they could remove it this quickly from Bali. The disease is so contagious. There may well be animals at the moment that are developing symptoms.”

Indonesia is attempting to vaccinate animals susceptible to the virus but amid a shortage of vaccines and personnel to administer them it has a huge battle on its hands.

There are more than 33 million head of livestock in the country, including 18 million cattle, according to its foot and mouth taskforce, and only 707,580 animals have been vaccinated during the outbreak.

The Australian government has resisted calls from the federal opposition to close the border with Indonesia to protect the countries’ bilateral and trade relationship.

It is a decision that has been well received in Jakarta.

Australia briefly banned live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 after the ABC’s Four Corners aired footage of animals being mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs.

A decade on and Marty Natalegawa, who was Indonesian foreign minister at the time, hopes open dialogue between governments on foot and mouth will continue.

“Given the seriousness of the threat and challenge, it is significant and important that both governments have reportedly been engaged in discussions to stop the outbreak in Indonesia and to prevent its spread to Australia,” he said.

“Such direct communication – hopefully constantly maintained – is key to ensure optimum coordination, effective action and to prevent unwanted policy surprises.”

Tjok Bagus Pemayun, the head of Bali’s tourism department, said the disease hasn’t dented the island’s appeal. The virus poses no threat to humans.

“The FMD cases in Bali have not affected numbers of tourists coming,” he said. The government is taking the news very seriously. We are doing all the efforts to tackle the FMD cases.

“Bali is recovering [from the pandemic] and is very vulnerable to such news but thankfully it has not affected the international tourists’ arrival.”

Officially, there are 199,188 active foot and mouth cases across Indonesia and there have been 430,171 total infections.

– with Amilia Rosa

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