Foot-and-mouth disease

​​​​​​If you suspect an exotic disease in your livestock, immediately call the
Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888
(free call within Australia)


Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious animal disease that would have severe consequences were it to be introduced into Australia. There have been a number of outbreaks in FMD-free countries that have had large socio-economic impacts. The 2001 outbreak in the United Kingdom caused losses of more than 8 billion pounds (approximately $AUD 19 billion).

More recently, outbreaks have continued to be seen in free countries. FMD occurred again in the United Kingdom in 2007, while  Taiwan ROC reported several outbreaks beginning in February 2009. In 2010 both Japan and the Republic of Korea experienced large FMD outbreaks which required extensive programs to control. The 2010–11 Korean outbreak is estimated to have cost the government some 3 trillion won (about $US 2.7 billion).

Australia estimates that a small FMD outbreak , controlled in 3 months, could cost around $AUD 7.1 billion, while a large 12 month outbreak would cost $AUD 16 billion.

To manage the risk, both government and industry engage in significant prevention, planning and preparedness. Beyond its borders, Australia has invested heavily in building the capacity of countries in the region to combat diseases, including support for the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) Southeast Asia and China FMD Campaign (SEACFMD). This project involves the coordinated control of FMD by eleven countries in the Southeast Asia region. However, FMD remains endemic in most of these eleven countries. Australia also maintains a strong biosecurity program at the border to manage FMD risks, and also undertakes extensive planning and preparedness activities to ensure that should an incursion occur, the disease can be contained and controlled as quickly as possible.

The Australian Government, through the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is continuing its efforts to ensure that Australia is well-prepared to manage the disease, and in 2011 sought the advice of Mr Ken Matthews AO to provide a qualitative assessment of Australia’s readiness to respond to the threat of FMD. The resulting report (A review of Australia’s preparedness for the threat of foot-and-mouth disease) is available on the department's website.

About the disease

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What is foot-and-mouth disease?

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious virus disease of animals. It is one of the most serious livestock diseases. It affects cloven-hoofed animals (those with divided hoofs), including cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs. It is found in many parts of the world, and has been reported in countries in Africa, the Middles East, Asia and South America. While it can cause serious production losses the most significant impact of the disease occurs because of its effect on trade in livestock and livestock products. Countries without the disease, which include many of Australia’s major trading partners do not import from, or severely restrict imports from FMD-infected countries.

There are seven serotypes of the virus: A, O, C, SAT1, SAT2, SAT3 and Asia1. These are further subdivided into more than 60 strains. The importance of these serotypes is that protection against one serotype (e.g. through vaccination) will not protect against infection with another serotype. Different serotypes dominate in different parts of the world.

What species are affected?

FMD affects cloven-hoofed animals (those with divided hoofs), including cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs.

How is it transmitted?

FMD is a viral disease that spreads rapidly between animals. Virus is excreted in breath, saliva, mucus, milk and faeces. The virus can be excreted by animals for up to four days before clinical signs appear. Animals can become infected through inhalation, ingestion and direct contact. The disease spreads most commonly through the movement of infected animals. In sheep the symptoms can be absent or very mild, and undetected infected sheep can be an important source of infection. FMD virus can also be spread on wool, hair, grass or straw; by the wind; or by mud or manure sticking to footwear, clothing, livestock equipment or vehicle tyres.

Pigs are regarded as ‘amplifying hosts’ because they can excrete very large quantities of the virus in their exhaled breath. Cattle are very susceptible to, and able to be infected by breathing in small quantities of the virus. In some animals (‘carriers’), the virus can continue to be carried for long periods (months or years) after apparent recovery.

How infectious is it?

FMD spreads rapidly from one animal to another, especially in cool, damp climates and/or when animals are penned or housed closely together. The virus survives well at temperatures below 4 degrees Celsius, but is inactivated as temperatures rise. It is also rapidly inactivated at relative humidity less than 60 per cent.

How does it affect animals?

Although FMD is not very lethal in adult animals, it can kill young animals and cause serious production losses. The clinical signs are fever followed by the appearance of vesicles (fluid-filled blisters) between the toes and on the heels, on mammary glands and especially on the lips, tongue and palate. These vesicles often combine to form large, swollen blisters that erupt to leave raw, painful ulcers that take up to 10 days to heal.

Foot lesions leave animals lame and unable to walk to feed or water. Tongue and mouth lesions are very painful and cause animals to drool and stop eating. Adults usually begin eating again after a few days, but young animals may weaken and die, or be left with foot deformities or damage to the mammary glands.

FMD is important in international trade in animals and animal products, with countries that are free of the disease banning or restricting imports from affected countries. This means an outbreak would have serious economic implications for a major livestock-exporting country like Australia.

Where is the disease found?

It is reported in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. Different strains of virus tend to dominate in different parts of the globe. Most recently, the outbreaks in Japan and Korea were due to FMD serotype O virus.

Is there any treatment or cure?

No. Affected animals will recover. Vaccines can protect against the disease but do not necessarily prevent animals from being infected. Vaccination is used in many countries to control the disease in an endemic situation. In order for a country to regain FMD-free status and limit the economic impacts, it is important to eradicate the virus as quickly as possible. Movement controls and removal of infected animals (along with other complementary control measures such as cleaning and disinfection) are essential to eradicate this disease. Vaccination can be an important tool to assist in containing and eradicating FMD, but its use will have trade implications.

FMD and Australia

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Is Australia prepared to handle this disease?

Australia has an internationally recognised capability to deal quickly and effectively with emergency animal disease outbreaks. In addition, Australia has a good track record of successfully dealing with outbreaks of disease in its animal populations, the most recent example being the large outbreak of equine influenza in 2007. However, an outbreak of FMD could have dimensions significantly greater than anything we have had to deal with in the past.

Australia has in place detailed contingency plans and a comprehensive whole-of-government approach to managing animal health emergencies that are designed to ensure that resources from a wide range of agencies are available. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment collaborates with the states and territory authorities to coordinate national responses to animal health emergencies.

Government and industry’s state of preparedness is under continuous review and improvements to the national capability are constantly being implemented. Exercises are held regularly to test plans and train those who would be involved. Reports of suspect cases are used to test the systems already in place.

The degree of success in dealing with an outbreak will depend on the nature and extent of any outbreak. Early detection and reporting of the disease is vital to reduce its spread.

What plans are in place?

There is a comprehensive range of plans in place to deal with an emergency disease outbreak. These plans are revised and updated on a regular basis as part of continuous improvement processes. The Australian Veterinary Plan or AUSVETPLAN is the central plan for controlling and eradicating an outbreak.

There is also a national relief and recovery coordination framework. This framework sets out roles and responsibilities in dealing with the economic and social impact of a disease outbreak and returning communities to normal after an outbreak.

Individual agencies also have emergency management response plans. For example, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has the Critical Incident Response Plan (CIRP) which details the role of the department in an emergency and the conduct of its response operations.

What systems are in place to quickly identify FMD?

The most important people in identifying and notifying FMD are usually stock owners and others who work with livestock. They should notify suspicious symptoms immediately to their local vet so that appropriate biosecurity arrangements to contain the spread of disease are instigated as quickly as possible.

Australia has an extensive network of both government and private vets who can identify the disease. This network includes 160 people who gained first hand experience of FMD from experience in the United Kingdom in 2001.

Where a vet confirms a suspicion of FMD they will immediately take samples and send these to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong for diagnosis. Diagnosis takes 24 hours. Meanwhile the premises will be quarantined and plans activated so the response can be initiated as soon as the results are known.

Has FMD ever occurred in Australia?

Minor outbreaks of possible FMD are believed to have occurred in Australia in 1801, 1804, 1871 and 1872.

What should be done if an outbreak occurs?

If you notice any unusual disease signs, abnormal behaviour or unexplained deaths in your livestock, contact your veterinarian, stock inspector, local Department of Primary Industries/Agriculture, or the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

Early detection is essential to reduce the potential impact of this disease.

Australia’s response plans call for the rapid detection, diagnosis and eradication of this devastating livestock disease. Eradication would involve detection of infected animals and their humane slaughter and biosecure disposal.​

Are there alternatives to destroying infected animals?

The primary means of eradicating an FMD outbreak is the humane destruction of infected animals. Other measures, such as the control of movement of livestock, are also essential. Vaccination may be an important component of the response.

Australia must make best use of new vaccine and diagnostic technologies to optimise FMD preparedness and response plans.

How are infected animals and products disposed of?

In accordance with Australia’s response plans, infected animals would be humanely destroyed. The carcases and any contaminated products would be buried or burnt. Trials are currently being undertaken to investigate the possibility of composting carcases and contaminated products.

How long will it take to respond to an outbreak once it is detected?

The response will be immediate on receipt of advice of a suspected case. The length of time taken to control and eradicate the disease will depend on how long the virus has been present before it is detected and the degree of spread.

If there is a single point outbreak authorities should be able to isolate and eradicate the disease quickly. If the disease has already taken hold and spread across a state or over borders, it will take much longer.

Early identification and reporting, and the need for vigilance on everyone’s part, are vitally important.

What is the role of the Australian Defence Force in an FMD outbreak?

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) could be called on to assist during an FMD outbreak, as in any emergency, when the necessary resources cannot be obtained elsewhere. For example, the ADF might be asked to assist with transportation, engineering the construction of disposal pits, or logistics management.

What is the role of other agencies and arrangements in an FMD outbreak?

Effective emergency management requires a partnership between all levels of government, the private sector and the community. Other response agencies include health and conservation departments, local government, police, emergency services and volunteer organisations. Australia has access to skilled personnel from overseas through the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve (IAHER), and to specially trained Australian veterinarians through the Australian Veterinary Reserve.

Assessing disease response arrangements

The Australian, state and territory governments, and industry, conduct regular exercises to assess response plans and procedures that will be used to combat disease outbreaks.

In 2014 and 2015 a series of discussion exercises and field activities, called Exercise Odysseus, were held to enhance Australia’s arrangements for implementing a national livestock standstill in the event of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

Information about previous exercises is available on the Emergency Preparedness web page.

Education and awareness

Various campaigns have encouraged farmers to ’look, check, ask a vet’ and report any suspect symptoms to their vet to state or territory department of primary industry.

Over the past few years a lot of information has also been made available about farm biosecurity.  Biosecurity has been a long-standing practice amongst larger producers, such as those in intensive livestock industries, but more recently, hobby farmers and those on small rural landholdings have been included in the campaign.  See the department’s biosecurity information and Animal Health Australia’s Farm Biosecurity website

Animal Health Australia holds regular training programs for veterinarians, government staff and industry personnel.

Industry and government liaison

Industry has an active role in the development of disease response plans and will play an important role in any response. Response plans are complemented by the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement which defines the roles and responsibilities of participating agencies and ensures that funding arrangements for a response have been pre-agreed. The AUSVETPLAN Control Centres Manual also describes the roles and responsibilities of participants.

Human Health

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Does FMD affect humans?

Human infections have been reported but they are very rare and do not result in serious disease. Humans can carry the virus in their nose for up to 24 hours and can be a source of infection for animals.

Is the human hand, foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD) the same thing as FMD in livestock?

No. The two diseases are quite different and are caused by different organisms. Viruses from the group called enteroviruses cause HFMD. FMD in livestock is not a threat to human health.

HFMD affects the inside of the mouth, the palm of the hands, fingers and soles of the feet, mostly in children. Typical symptoms include a rash or ulcers in the mouth, on the inner cheeks, gums, sides of the tongue, and bumps or blisters on the hand, feet and sometimes other parts of the skin which may last seven to 10 days. Seek medical attention if you think you or your child may be affected.

FMD Risk to Australia

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Is Australia vulnerable?

Yes. Australia’s large domestic animal industries have not been exposed to this disease and are fully susceptible. Despite the implementation of regional control programs, FMD continues to cause problems in many parts of the world, including South East Asia. FMD is found as close to Australia as Malaysia. Australia has successfully kept FMD out of the country for more than 130 years, but FMD has shown its ability to establish and spread in a wide range of environmental and production systems around the world. Vigilance and preparedness are essential safeguards.

What would be the consequences of an FMD outbreak in Australia?

FMD would have very serious effects on Australia’s livestock industries since so many species found here are susceptible.

An ABARES update (in 2011) of the Productivity Commission report of 2001 estimated that over a ten year period there would be severe direct economic losses to the livestock and meat processing sector from an outbreak of FMD. These losses ranged from $7.1 billion for a small three month outbreak, to $16.0 billion for a large 12 month outbreak (expressed in current dollar terms).

However, well-developed exotic disease outbreak procedures are in place that involve all levels of government and the livestock industries. Those procedures are regularly tested, updated and improved.

How could FMD virus enter Australia?

Australia doesn’t allow imports of any susceptible live animals, semen or uncooked meat or unprocessed dairy products from FMD-affected countries or zones. FMD virus is most likely to be introduced in contaminated, illegally imported animal products.

Information for Travellers

People travelling to, or returning to Australia from FMD risk countries need to be aware of the biosecurity requirements.

Can I get FMD from eating affected meat while I’m in an FMD affected country?

FMD is not transmitted to humans in meat.

Last reviewed: 4 February 2020
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