Anthrax in animals
Anthrax occurs in Victoria from time to time. The most recent anthrax outbreak in Victoria was in sheep during March 2017 on five properties near Swan Hill.
We urge farmers and those working with livestock to be vigilant for anthrax. Prompt reporting of suspected cases may potentially reduce the contamination of affected farms.
Any unexplained sudden deaths in livestock should be immediately reported to the 24-hour Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888, to your local veterinarian or to Agriculture Victoria animal health staff.
The below information note contains information on anthrax in animals.
Note Number: AG0802
Published: January 2003
Updated: March 2017
The following information on anthrax is provided:
- to advise livestock producers of the clinical signs of anthrax and actions required if anthrax is suspected
- to provide information about anthrax for the general public, including the history of anthrax in Victoria
- to outline Victoria's prevention and control methods.
What is anthrax?
Anthrax is an infectious bacterial disease of animals, caused by the spore-forming bacteria Bacillus anthracis. It can affect humans and a wide range of animals; however, nearly all cases in Victoria have been seen in livestock, particularly cattle and sheep.
What are the signs of infection in livestock?
Cattle and sheep with anthrax die suddenly. Just prior to death, animals may show signs of high fever. Blood may be present around the nose, mouth and anus of carcasses. However, in many cases you may not see this sign, so it should not be relied upon to diagnose anthrax. If livestock die suddenly, even when there is no history of anthrax on the property, anthrax could potentially be the cause.
To prevent a large-scale anthrax incident, it is critically important that the carcasses of cattle and sheep that die suddenly without any other obvious cause are tested for anthrax before they are moved. This reduces the risk of human exposure and minimises contamination of the affected property if anthrax is confirmed.
What is the history of anthrax in Australia?
Anthrax has been recognised in Australia as a cause of sudden death in farm animals, particularly sheep and cattle for more than 150 years. Anthrax was probably introduced into Australia in the early 1880s by contaminated fertiliser imported from the Indian sub-continent. Prior to the availability of an effective vaccine, anthrax was a major cause of mortalities in sheep and cattle and was widely spread across pastoral areas by travelling livestock. Spores of Bacillus anthraciscan lie dormant in the soil for decades and are capable of infecting animals which graze on contaminated areas.
Where does anthrax occur?
Anthrax is well known to occur intermittently in grazing livestock and there have been sporadic cases in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland in recent decades. For Victoria, most of these cases have been in northern or north eastern parts of the state and have largely involved cattle. Usually only a small number of deaths occur on each affected farm.
Irrespective of where they are located in Victoria, livestock owners are encouraged to immediately report unexplained, sudden deaths of livestock to Agriculture Victoria or their veterinarian.
When does anthrax occur?
Anthrax can occur at any time of the year. Over the past few decades, it has occurred most commonly during the summer months in Victoria.
Irrespective of the time of year, livestock owners are encouraged to immediately report unexplained, sudden deaths of livestock to Agriculture Victoria or their veterinarian.
What action is taken if anthrax is suspected?
The owner, or their veterinarian, must report the case to an Agriculture Victoria veterinary officer or their private veterinarian without delay.
Do not move the carcass. The carcass should remain undisturbed and unopened at the death site until anthrax is ruled out.
Movement of animals and animal products from the farm is suspended while anthrax testing is carried out.
Appropriate samples are collected and tested on farm using the hand-held immunochromatographic test (ICT) with results available within 15 minutes. Further confirmatory testing is usually undertaken at a laboratory, taking approximately 24 hours. This testing will be carried out at no cost to the farmer.
If the case occurs on a dairy farm, the dairy processor is advised. Relevant food safety and public health agencies are also routinely notified.
Cattle producers are eligible for an industry-funded incentive payment of $1,000:
- where a producer suspects anthrax,
- calls his/her local veterinarian, or Agriculture Victoria, requesting an anthrax test on the carcass,
- does not move the carcass, and
- the animal is found to be the first anthrax case associated with an outbreak (i.e. only one payment for an outbreak where multiple farms are affected).
Note that livestock producers may be eligible for disease investigation subsidies under the Significant Disease Investigation Program, in the event the death is not associated with anthrax.
What action is taken on confirmation?
Where a case of anthrax is confirmed after veterinary examination of affected animals and laboratory testing of samples, the affected property is quarantined, potentially exposed stock are vaccinated, dead animals are safely disposed of (usually by burning) and contaminated sites disinfected. The quarantine is not released until at least 20 days have elapsed since the last anthrax case and at least 20 days have passed since the last round of vaccinations on the property (whichever is later).
Most incidents of anthrax involve single isolated cases, and quarantine and vaccination measures prevent further cases. Occasionally, larger-scale outbreaks occur in Victoria, such as those in 1997 and 2007. Vaccination across a wider area is usually required to control larger outbreaks.
What measures are taken by Agriculture Victoria to prepare for an outbreak?
The measures taken in Victoria to deal with occurrences of anthrax in farm animals are well-developed and designed to limit and control disease outbreaks, protect domestic and export markets for livestock and their products, and safeguard public health.
Agriculture Victoria maintains an all-hours Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline (tel 1800 675 888) for the immediate reporting by farmers and veterinarians of suspected cases of anthrax.
Agriculture Victoria has comprehensive policy and operational procedures for the management of anthrax, which cover notification, quarantine, disinfection, disposal of carcasses and animal products, surveillance and vaccination.
Australian veterinary authorities maintain emergency plans, based on the Australian Veterinary Emergency Plan (AUSVETPLAN), for the control of a large-scale anthrax outbreak. These plans include collaborative arrangements with a range of government authorities and industry organisations.
Livestock owners and veterinarians throughout Victoria are reminded seasonally to be alert to signs of anthrax and to report, without delay, unexplained sudden deaths in livestock to Agriculture Victoria so appropriate investigations can be undertaken and control measures instituted if necessary. Local veterinarians are supported by Agriculture Victoria to investigate suspect anthrax cases so there is no cost to the farmer.
Agriculture Victoria maintains a stock of anthrax vaccine for use in an outbreak. Vaccination carried out in response to a case of anthrax in the area is carried out free of charge.
Private veterinarians are contracted to assist with collection of specimens and vaccination of at risk livestock.
Victoria has the necessary legislation in place to carry out the required disease control measures to deal with an outbreak. Victorian emergency management arrangements ensure a multi-agency response involving all relevant government agencies.
How can anthrax be prevented?
Farmers in anthrax-prone areas should contact their local Agriculture Victoria veterinary officer if they wish to undertake voluntary preventive vaccination against anthrax. Vaccination of cattle in anthrax-prone areas is subsidised with farmers paying only $1 per head. The subsidy does not apply where producers wish to send cattle overseas (vaccination for export purposes) or to a feedlot where pre-entry vaccination is a requirement.
For voluntary preventive vaccination of sheep, contact your local Agriculture Victoria veterinary officer for further information.
What are the risks to people from anthrax in animals?
Very few human cases of anthrax have been reported in Victoria. The greatest risk is to those who handle dead livestock such as farmers, veterinarians and knackery workers. The last documented case of human anthrax in Victoria was a knackery worker, infected in 2007, who had contact with an infected carcass, developed the cutaneous form of anthrax, was treated and recovered.
Agriculture Victoria Customer Service Centre can put you in touch with your local Agriculture Victoria animal health staff member. Contact the Customer Service Centre on 136 186.
Livestock owners and veterinarians are reminded to immediately report suspected cases of anthrax to the 24-hour Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888 or local Agriculture Victoria animal health staff.
Published and Authorised by:
Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources
1 Spring Street
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