Skip to content

How to spot an exotic disease

By Linda Searle, District Veterinarian

Farmers are as different as the farming enterprises that they run.  You get everything from tree changers to self-sufficiency enthusiasts to fourth generation landholders and everything in between. This means that some farmers have many years’ experience working with stock and others are just starting out, but there may be some things that all farmers need to know a bit more about.

Farmers will often start to recognise the patterns that are prevalent on their farm, meaning that they will be able to pick up on the start of mastitis in a dairy herd or a couple of lambs that have died of pulpy kidney on lush feed.

However, sometimes an unusual event happens. Maybe there are a couple of sheep that are scratching themselves badly even though they don’t have lice; maybe the goats have strange lumps all over their bodies; the cows have had a few abortions and the pigs have blisters around their mouth. What do you do in these situations? There may be some very common reasons for these issues. But they could also be signs of scrapie in sheep, goat pox, rift valley fever in cattle, and foot-and-mouth disease in pigs. How do you know the difference?

The only way to know for sure is to have the situation investigated. Surveillance programs exist throughout Australia to not only keep our export markets open but also to try and pick up on any issues as early into an outbreak as possible. Early detection of a problem can save billions of dollars, with both less money to be spent on controlling or eradicating an issue and, hopefully, a quicker return to normal export markets.

In NSW, the district surveillance program delivered by the district veterinarians working for Local Land Services is a way of looking for exotic, notifiable or district-impacting diseases. This is funded by the annual rates, in addition to state and federal government funding, so visits to properties and laboratory testing are done without any additional charges to farmers.

There are also other programs that look for specific diseases. The transmissible spongeform encephalopathy (TSE) surveillance program looks for evidence of scrapie and mad cow disease throughout Australia. This is done not because we think we have these diseases, but rather to prove to our export partners that we do not. This program actually sees farmers given $200 for eligible cattle and $100 for eligible sheep for simply allowing vets to test the brains of dead sheep or cattle for the presence of these diseases.

Many farmers are worried that if they flag a problem they are either wasting time or looking silly because it is a normal issue. Conversely, some worry that it could be a major issue that means their business is going to be shut down, or their animals slaughtered, and a big roll of black and yellow quarantine tape wrapped around their property.

You should never worry that the issue is something routine; this is the best-case scenario. Most of the disease investigations through the surveillance programs do come back with common diseases or conditions; this is great, because not only do we get to rule out a potential issue, but we also get to know, hopefully, the actual problem.

As for exotic diseases being found, once again this is a good outcome, as it means that we can go about dealing with a problem hopefully sooner rather than later. Depending on the situation, restrictions may occur to help prevent spread disease, but this should not deter people from notifying us. The severe penalties really apply to people who have deliberately done the wrong thing has and thus made a situation worse.

There are two things that I would like every farmer reading this to do, whether they have been raising thousands of stock for decades or they just have one pet pig:

  • be able to recognise when something is unusual
  • notify someone - you can ring the Emergency Disease Hotline 1800 675 888 or your local district vet.
While most of the time when you hear hoof beats you can expect to see a horse, always make sure that you have a look around to make sure that you aren’t about to get trampled by a zebra!