Australian exports have become tangled up in mossie virus outbreak

Chris McLennan
By Chris McLennan
April 13 2022 - 9:00pm
COVER UP: The outbreak of Japanese encephalitis means horse owners are advised to cover up their animals from the risk of mosquito bites. Picture: Federal government.

Australia's valuable livestock and meat export industry has been caught up in the Japanese encephalitis outbreak.

Many of our traditional customers are now demanding guarantees our exports are virus free.

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The live animal export industry is the first to strike trouble.

Sales of Australian horses, an industry estimated to be worth more than a $100 million annually, have already been hit by new requirements from foreign buyers.

Authorities this week revealed there are at least 12 of our markets which have import requirements for host countries with JEV.

"The department is working with horse exporters to ensure horses meet importing country requirements for JEV," a Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department spokesman said.

"The department is continuing to work with New Zealand to negotiate further changes to the entry requirements for Australian horses travelling to New Zealand."

One of the main problems to emerge is that Australia does not have an animal vaccine for JEV.

Although a vaccine is being fast-tracked, it could take months before it is available.

The department said other commodities so far affected by JEV trade impacts include:

  • Pork meat and offal to Indonesia, where there has been little trade anyway.
  • Pet food to Canada where trade has occurred (approximately 160 consignments of mostly sheep product - about 3200 tonnes over the past year).

JEV has spread rapidly throughout Australia since February and although it has not been officially declared endemic, it was declared a "Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance" on March 4.

It was that official announcement from Australia which has triggered the concerns of importers.

"It is too early to determine if JE can be eradicated in Australia," the department spokesman said.

The fact the virus has been found in the wild already, with a positive test of feral pigs in the Northern Territory, suggests to experts it is here to stay.

Mosquito-borne JEV has already confirmed to have infected 35 people, causing three deaths, since it was confirmed to have travelled across Australia in February.

There are more than 50 infected piggeries in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and NSW.

Pigs and horses are common victims of the mosquitoes although national surveillance efforts are focussed on human health and commercial piggeries.

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Authorities have not released any information on confirmed cases among horses, it is well known that like humans, they are dead-end hosts, meaning the virus is not spread any further.

Despite the meat of infected pigs being declared safe to eat, there are still concerns about the movement of product into virus-free countries.

The department provides the certification for live animals, meat and meat products for export to overseas markets.

There are believed to be more than half a million feral horses across northern Australia.

The department has approached the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to obtain an emergency use permit for a JEV vaccine for use in horses as part of Australia's JEV response.

Use of a horse vaccine will require a full APVMA assessment of a vaccine and will require a commercial import and distribution network.

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"The department will work with trading partners should any other issues arise around the export of pig meat, offal and pet food, due to this outbreak," the department said.

Horse owners have been warned their animals may be infected with JEV but show no signs of disease.

Signs of disease include an elevated temperature, jaundice, lethargy, anorexia and neurological signs which can vary in severity.

Those neurological signs can include difficulty swallowing and impaired vision.

There are no movement restrictions currently in place for horses moving within an Australian state or territory, or interstate.

Until a vaccine is available, the best advice for horse owners is to put a hooded rug and fly mask on their animal to help protect against mosquito bites.

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Where available, stabling horses between dusk and dawn may also be beneficial.

If the horse allows, apply a safe insect repellent. To apply the repellent to the horse's face and ears, spray it onto a cloth and rub it on, avoiding around and above the eyes.

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Chris McLennan

Chris McLennan

National Rural Property Writer

ACM national rural property writer based in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. Career journalist. Multi award winner.

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