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If you were taught  epidemiology as part of an undergraduate degree you probably did not enjoy it very much. You may have learnt a whole bunch of statistics and without a real-world application the knowledge quickly faded. But do not let the academics fool you into thinking that is what epidemiology is all about. As a veterinarian you are practicing epidemiology every day – undertaking disease investigations where the farmer cannot figure out what is going on, analysing the environmental and management conditions, collecting the appropriate samples to send to the laboratory to rule out exotic diseases. Don’t shy away from epidemiology, it’s a much bigger part of being a vet than you might realise!

In this edition...
New department name, still the same game!
Highlights of 2014’s disease surveillance
The risk of the backyard pig
Plant toxicities to keep in mind
Animal disease investigation courses in 2015 – apply now!
Across the Nation
Around the World 
Significant Disease Investigation (SDI) program
What’s happening out there?
Considering a conference in 2015?

VetSource @ DEDJTR

Animal health and welfare information for Victorian veterinary practitioners is available at VetSource (

New department name, still the same game! 
From the first of January 2015 we said goodbye to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), and hello to the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR). Whilst your local animal health staff are working under a new department, their role, and the assistance they provide to you, has not changed. And better yet, new and exciting developments in animal welfare and animal health surveillance are coming this way – stay tuned!

2014: a year in review
Although 2014 was a busy year for surveillance, in terms of emergency and exotic animal diseases, it has (fortunately!) been relatively quiet. In June, the strength of our targeted surveillance was demonstrated with a diagnosis of atypical scrapie in a ewe through the National Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy Freedom Assurance Program, the third in Australia. Pigeon paramyxovirus cropped up again a few times and more reports are expected. This is because we suspect the enthusiasm for vaccination among pigeon owners has declined but the disease is still endemic in feral pigeon populations. Finally, the diagnosis of leishmaniasis in a domestic dog reminded us all that our barrier defences are not entirely foolproof, and to expect the unexpected.
The profile of the diseases most commonly reported to DEPI in 2014 has not changed much from past years, with notifiable diseases such as salmonella and bovine viral diarrhoea virus high on the list for cattle, and internal parasites (helminths) and polioencephalomalacia topping the list of diagnoses in sheep and goats (graphs 1 and 2).

Graphs 1 and 2: Top diagnoses for Record of Disease Event notifications reported to DEPI, in cattle (top) and sheep and goats (bottom), 2014. Emergency animal diseases were excluded for reports where no final aetiology was reached.
Figure 1 demonstrates both the range of species and the wide geographic distribution of disease investigations that took place throughout the year. Reports include investigations undertaken by DEPI animal health staff, private veterinarians and farmer reports. 

Figure 1: Record of Disease Event investigations by species, 2014.

The risk of the backyard pig
Victoria has the country’s second largest pig herd, standing at 505,000 head (Queensland has the largest at 667,000 head; 2011 agricultural census data – there is however a bias in these figures as many of the backyard pig producers do not have an ABN). Although many are housed in large establishments, the backyard pig is becoming ever more popular amongst Victorians. Figure 2 displays the geographical location of registered properties with pigs – as you can see there is likely to be a few near you!

Figure 2: Location of pig properties registered with DEPI, 2014 (colour refers to spatial accuracy only).
But why should we be concerned about this pig-raising trend? Whilst larger enterprises feed their pigs strict compounded rations, many small-herd pig owners feed waste supplied to them by food outlets, or from their own kitchen table. The concern with this practice is when this waste contains meat or meat products – it is then termed ‘swill’.
Swill-feeding to pigs is the most likely way that Australian livestock may be exposed to an exotic disease agent like foot and mouth disease (FMD), and is illegal.

Did you know, FMD isn’t the only concern! Other exotic diseases that can be spread to pigs in food waste containing mammalian meat or dairy products include African Swine Fever, Classical Swine Fever, Aujeszky's Disease, Swine Vesicular Disease and Transmissible Gastroenteritis.

As we know, some infectious agents like FMD survive very well in meat products, bone marrow and blood, even at freezing temperatures, when smoked, or when treated by wet or dry salting (e.g. salami). Pigs are the most effective propagators of FMD, and one contaminated meat scrap consumed by one pig could result in the overnight crash of our international livestock markets, the flooding of domestic markets, and the potential slaughter of countless livestock.

Think it won’t happen?
In 2010-11, consignments of approximately 3,000 tonnes of illegally imported uncooked and cooked pork, chicken and beef spring rolls and dim-sims were distributed throughout Australia from South Korea – a country that had experienced an extensive FMD outbreak. The products were reportedly already on food outlet shelves before the former Australian Quarantine and Inspection Services (AQIS) discovered the breach. Had one of these food outlets supplied waste to a local pig farmer, the Australian livestock industry may have easily faced disaster. Every year, large quantities of illegally imported animal products are seized by quarantine authorities, however some of these products may pass undetected through this first line of defence.
Legislation is the second barrier. Departmental staff routinely perform audits of pig owners and of Victorian food outlets to ensure that any waste provided to farmers is free from meat contamination. A recent audit of over 600 regional restaurants, hotels and other food outlets found approximately twelve per cent of establishments provided waste to pig and other livestock owners. Despite the provision of advice regarding swill feeding, and appropriate legislation and auditing, this system is not fail safe.
This is where you come in, at the front-line of our defence against exotic disease. We need your help to highlight the risk of swill feeding to your pig-owning clients, and if you believe the practice of swill feeding to be occurring, contact your local DEDJTR animal health staff member or call the EAD hotline on 1800 675 888. You should also ensure that pig owners have a Property Identification Code and a Registered Pig Tattoo. An information page with factsheets for small scale pig farmers, hobby farmers and those that have pigs as pets is available at


Plant toxicities to keep in mind this season

As we move into a warmer than average late summer/autumn period, it is wise to keep a particular few plant toxicities on your differential list.
Perennial ryegrass toxicosis (PRGT) can be an issue for stock grazing perennial ryegrass dominant pastures, and has caused widespread animal losses and welfare concerns on many Victorian properties in the past. Some years tend to be worse than others, with four serious incidents over the last 25 years (the worst being the 2002 season which saw the death of 100,000 sheep and 500 cattle). Clinical signs typically include ataxia, depression, hyperaesthesia, gait abnormalities and recumbency. If your region experienced late season rainfall causing abundant pasture growth, and you are seeing hot spells during this dry period, stock in your area are at higher risk. These weather conditions tend to occur annually, particularly in southern Victoria. For more information, visit
Heliotrope (potato weed, blue weed) toxicity tends to occur in Victorian livestock over late spring to early autumn. Heliotrope contains toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are present throughout the plant (including seed) at all stages of growth. Seeds germinate in warm, moist conditions, such as following summer rain, and plants will thrive in open, cultivated ground. Sheep are the dominant grazers of these areas and are therefore more commonly affected than cattle. Pigs, poultry, horses and people are also at risk, however poisoning is usually due to consumption of cereal grains contaminated by heliotrope seed. The disease can be chronic in nature (ongoing hepatic damage) and may manifest as photosensitisation. Secondary effects may include pregnancy toxaemia, copper poisoning and ammonia poisoning. Careful pasture and grazing management will assist in preventing toxicity. For more information, visit

Figures 3 and 4: Young (left) and mature (right) heliotrope. Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Pithomyces chartarum toxicity (facial eczema) is the result of damage to the biliary system caused by sporidesmin, a poisonous substance produced by the P. chartarum fungus as it grows on dead pasture litter. The disease often occurs in Victorian cattle and sheep in hot summer and autumn periods following warm rain. The fungus requires warm ground temperatures and high humidity for rapid growth, and monitoring weather conditions allows for predication of high risk periods for particular areas. Sheep and cattle can be protected by zinc supplementation, and careful pasture management can assist. The heritability trait for resistance in sheep is strong and selective breeding can increase natural resistance. For more information, visit
Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) occur commonly in Victoria, and blooms can be triggered by low water inflow, lower storage volume and warmer weather conditions. Cases of cyanobacteria toxicity in Victorian sheep and cattle tend to occur from November to March, often as a result of a contaminated water supply. Early detection and intervention is required to prevent stock losses. Stock should be removed from the contaminated water source, and any who have recently consumed water may be drenched with activated charcoal or bentonite. Remember, people and pets such as dogs who swim in affected waters are also at risk.

Figure 5: A blue-green algal bloom. Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Phalaris toxicity is typically seen  in Victoria autumn through to early spring, and commonly occurs after moving stock from poor quality, low protein feed onto fresh phalaris. The toxicity of the pasture varies with its stage of growth, with young, vigorously growing phalaris more likely to be toxic. Risk is also higher following a break in the weather, and soils deficient in cobalt are implicated.  Improving management practices, such as increasing stocks’ nitrogen load this summer with supplementary lucerne, can help to significantly reduce the risk of toxicity. New varieties of phalaris with a lower alkaloid content are also becoming available.
Plants tend to be quite particular in the environment they like to live in. Get to know what occurs in your area (and what it looks like) to help narrow down the differential list. There are some fantastic (and free!) apps available to help you identify plants, simply by taking a picture on your smartphone, for example FlowerChecker, Garden Compass Plant / Disease Identifier and PlantNet Plant Identification.  Search the Google Play or iTunes store to find your favourite.

Aside from plant toxicities, another disease to be aware of these coming months, particularly in south-western Victoria, is selenium/vitamin E deficiency. It manifests as white muscle disease in lambs and weaners; scouring, ill thrift and reduced wool production in weaners and hoggets; and  infertility in ewes. It is more common in acidic basalt/granite and sandy soil areas with clover-dominant pastures and annual rainfall over 450mm. Heavy or long-term fertiliser application, particularly with sulphur-fortified superphosphate or gypsum, can predispose grazing sheep to deficiency.

2015 Animal disease investigation courses - apply now!
The Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) is offering an intensive two day course in animal disease investigation for private veterinary practitioners. The course aims to enable participants to confidently and competently investigate animal disease events through a combination of disease investigation theory and practice. The theory sessions are highly interactive involving animal disease case studies, set tasks and short presentations; the practical sessions focus on the conduct of a safe, systematic, comprehensive ruminant necropsy. Detailed course notes and a ruminant necropsy DVD will be supplied.
This course is designed for veterinary practitioners who work in either large or mixed animal practice in both rural and peri-urban areas in Victoria. Practitioners working in peri-urban areas of Melbourne and regional centres, who see livestock infrequently, are encouraged to apply.  
2015 dates (all courses will be held in Bendigo):
•              26-27 March 2015 (Thursday/Friday)
•              9-10 April 2015 (Thursday/Friday)
•              30 April – 1 May 2015 (Thursday/Friday)
•              14-15 May 2015 (Thursday/Friday)

Training costs will be met by DEDJTR.  All meals and accommodation associated with course delivery will also be met by DEDJTR. Participants will need to make their own transport arrangements to and from Bendigo.

Applications close on 28 February 2015.
For further information, and to obtain an application form, please contact:
Mrs Liane Holm
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources
Tel: (03) 5430 4558

Across the Nation…

The National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture is developing a National Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Strategy, to combat the threat of AMR and to provide ​national and international leadership. A report titled “Surveillance and Reporting of Antimicrobial Resistance and Antibiotic Usage in Animals and Agriculture in Australia” is available online and as outlined “provides an analysis of current antimicrobial usage monitoring and resistance surveillance activities in the animal/agriculture sector in Australia and other countries;  options for the establishment of a nationally coordinated approach to usage monitoring and resistance surveillance in the animal/agriculture sector appropriate for the Australian context; the enablers and barriers for each option and how each option accords with World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Standards” ( Please visit the website to read more and download a copy of the report.

Stock Health Monitor – download your copy today

Last year, Animal Health Australia began publication of Stock Health Monitor , a newsletter designed to provide information about significant production diseases across Australia’s alpaca, cattle, goat and sheep producer communities, as well as communicate Johne’s disease related matters. Information is relevant for both producers and animal health professionals, and includes topics such as livestock production diseases, on-farm biosecurity and new research. To read the latest issue, please visit:

Around the World…

Avian influenza spreads across the globe

At present, detections and outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza are occurring across the globe (see figure 6). Our Research Leader - Veterinary Pathobiology, Grant Rawlin, has been following the molecular typing of the latest influenza A findings from outbreaks in Canada and the United States of America. There have been numerous reports of highly pathogenic H5 strains, providing an indication of the geographical mobility of the virus – initially spreading from South Korea, to Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. Only time will tell if a highly pathogenic H5 strain can find its way into Australian domestic poultry. The most important message to broadcast remains clear: the best way to prevent outbreaks of disease in domestic poultry is adequate biosecurity.
To assist yourself and your clients to assess a farms’ biosecurity risks, a Farm Biosecurity Action Planner is available online from the Farm Biosecurity Program (

Figure 6: OIE member countries’ official highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak map, January 2015. Source: World Animal Health Information Database (WAHID).


Suspect Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy case detected in Norway

Routine testing of a cow in Nord-Trondelag, Norway, by the Norwegian Food Safety Authority this month (January) has indicated possible Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more famously coined ‘mad cow disease’. Confirmatory testing is currently underway at the European Union reference laboratory in England, which will indicate whether is it a typical or atypical case of BSE. Four additional high risk animals from the originating herd are under movement restrictions until the final diagnosis is made. Keep updated on the findings at:


Foot and mouth disease continues its spread through China

The foot and mouth disease situation in China is a good example of how difficult the virus can be to control once it has entered a country. After detection of a serotype A strain in June 2013, outbreaks have continued, with the most recent reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) this month. Of concern, the outbreak locations have been geographically dispersed, with apparent long-distance spread eastwards in this latest instance. Chinese authorities have implemented control measures including disposal of contaminated animals, application of disinfectants, restrictions on livestock transportation, and distribution of vaccines. 

FMD Watch
Foot and mouth disease outbreaks continue to occur in parts of Africa and Asia. 

Figures 7 and 8: OIE member countries’ official FMD outbreak map (above) and distribution map (below), January 2015. Source: World Animal Health Information Database (WAHID).

For more information of the latest disease outbreaks across the globe, please visit:

Significant Disease Investigation (SDI) program
The Victorian Significant Disease Investigation (SDI) Program aims to boost Victoria's capacity for the early detection of such diseases in livestock and wildlife by increasing the participation of veterinary practitioners and subsidising the cost of investigating significant diseases. 
Subsidies are available from the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) for the initial field investigation, including clinical and post-mortem evaluation, laboratory testing and a follow-up investigation of significant disease events in livestock and free-living wildlife. A subsidy is also available for cattle, sheep, goat and pig owners to reduce their costs when they engage a veterinary practitioner to undertake a significant disease investigation.

For more information about the DEDJTR subsidies for significant disease investigations and reporting, please contact DEDJTR Animal Health staff at your nearest DEDJTR office, telephone the DEDJTR Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or visit the DEPI website.

What’s happening out there? 
For the latest edition of the Department of Agriculture’s EAD alerts, visit: Emergency and Exotic Animal Diseases - Bulletins and Alerts.
To access the Animal Health Surveillance Quarterly Report:

For international disease updates, visit:
GLEWS (Global Livestock Early Warning System):
OIE/WAHID database:
FAOSTAT agriculture - production, consumption and trade of agricultural commodities:
FAOSTAT - detailed world agricultural trade flows:

Background info on countries in the Asian region:
FAO Regional Data exchange: 
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific: 
OIE Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific: 
Southeast Asian FMD campaign 


Considering a conference in 2015?

Annual Meeting of the Society for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine
Belgium, 25 – 27 March 2015 (early registration closes 31st Jan)
Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists - Science Week
Gold Coast (Queensland), 9 – 11 July 2015
 14th International Symposium of Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics
Mexico, 3 – 7 November 2015.

What do you call a cow that has just given birth?


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