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Karnal bunt scenario tests surveillance

Over 2016, a number of activities have been undertaken as part of Exercise Haryana to test the grains industry’s readiness to respond to an incursion of the exotic fungal pathogen Karnal bunt (Tilletia indica) – one of Australia’s highest-alert plant diseases.

These activities included field tests using simulated incursions in regional areas in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia.

“It’s preparation we hope we will never need,” says Jim Moran, Victoria’s grains industry biosecurity officer, who ran a field exercise in the Wimmera to test surveillance and tracing activities on a working grain property and its storage facility.

“It highlighted the skills we had and what we need to do to iron out some aspects of the procedures in terms of sampling grain, farm safety matters, and the hygiene procedures used when entering and leaving the property,” he says.

Karnal bunt is an exotic fungal disease of wheat, durum and triticale. While an infected crop may show some decline in yield, the main impact is on the quality of grain – making it unfit for livestock or human consumption.

Because Karnal bunt can look like some other diseases that are already in Australia it is crucial to use the surveillance methods that distinguish it from similar diseases. Many countries have import restrictions on this disease. If it was to be detected in Australia this would limit access to interstate and international grain markets and significantly decrease the value of Australian grain.

Mr Moran says a rapid response would be vital to limit its spread, minimise the impact on the industry and wider community, and give the best chance of eradicating the disease.

Plant Health Australia is coordinating the year-long Exercise Haryana, with input from Grain Producers Australia and the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR). Activities include: providing information to the public as part of a response; surveillance and tracing of grain origin; control of grain movement; and national decision-making.

Mr Moran says the Victorian simulation in the Wimmera region was part of the surveillance and tracing activities and involved about 20 DEDJTR staff.

“Field teams were given a situation briefing and an operations plan to test in the field. The owner of the grain property provided an overview and issues that staff would need to consider when visiting a farm.

“Eight surveillance teams were involved. Each team had two biosecurity staff wearing full personal protection equipment. They set up equipment to practise hygiene protocols, checked surveillance methods for signs of disease on growing crops, and sampled grain in storage facilities to find out if Karnal bunt was present.”

Identifying the source of the Karnal bunt was an important part of the exercise, with two alternative scenarios developed for the point of origin.

The exercise was an opportunity to test technology too, Mr Moran says. “Biosecurity staff had a chance to use their iPads in the field, to directly record the statements from people playing the role of grain growers. Information was uploaded from iPads directly to a central collection point on the DEDJTR computer network, saving time and bypassing the need for paper copies.”

Feedback from all groups participating in field exercises will be collated into a report to be shared. This information will also be used for the final exercise in the series, focusing on the control of grain movements following the initial detection of Karnal bunt to prevent its spread, and making decisions at a national level.

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