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Aussies watch their health, doggedly keeping outbreaks at bay

M.R. Subramani

Canberra , March 3

AS a group of visitors landed up in Sydney airport from Kuala Lumpur and took their turns to get their baggage, an Australian official with a Beagles dog on leash led it here, there and everywhere; and it sniffed everything on sight.

More than the customs officials, it was these officials who were on their toes. The visitors had to fill in a form to say if they carried any uncooked or unprocessed bovine meat, poultry meat or eggs/egg products with them.

Formalities over and the visit cleared, the travellers got a warm reception.

If the initial reception into the country looks a bit tough, then one has to excuse these officials down under. That is because they are not only doing their duty but also ensuring that their people and animals are not affected by any major health outbreak.

The last three years, in particular, have seen governments across the world and global trade face a tough time fighting the foot-and-mouth disease, SARS, the mad cow disease and currently, the avian influenza.

The Australian Government has professionally got ready to tackle such outbreaks. The moment they saw the disaster that the mad cow disease struck Europe in the late 1980s, they set up a quarantine system. And for the last 12 years, they have a separate Quarantine and Inspection Service (QIS).

With its professional approach, QIS has warded off every potential risk to human health in the country.

"We were the first to ban use of bone meal as animal feed in the world way back in late 1990s, once we saw how it lead to mad cow disease," says Dr Peter Barnard of Meat and Livestock Australia. The mad cow disease had to led to disastrous effects in Europe, where it lead to human deaths.

It is not just the airports that are targeted by QIS for prevention. "Our sea ports and even mails to the country are thoroughly checked," says Mr Andrew Gordon, a Public Relations Officer with the service.

Coming handy for QIS is the service of the Beagles and Border Collia canines. "The Beagles is a trusted one to sniff any food that those coming from abroad bring. They are very efficient at that and they do anything for food," Mr Gordon says.

Not surprisingly, the Beagles can be seen zigzagging greedily led by the quarantine officials at the airports.

"The Beagles take an eight-hour shift everyday and on an average, are able to zero in on 15-20 people who bring uncooked and unprocessed food," he says.

The Border Collia dogs are put to better use to sniff all incoming mails to the country. "These dogs have a sensitive nose that can detect a pressed daisy (plant) in an envelope among hundred," says Mr Gordon. These dogs try to find out besides plants, food or animal material, seeds and soils that Australia considers a risk to environment or agro-industries.

"You know, we use the Labradors to detect arms and ammunition. We have even started exporting these Labradors to countries like the US," Mr Gordon says.

According to Mr Warren Truss, Australia's Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the government has spent A$600 million (A$1=Rs 35.50) to set up the quarantine system.

"We maintain a cent per cent intervention rate on incoming international mail, shipping and air and sea containers and approximately 90 per cent of passengers arriving at our international airports have their luggage x-rayed or inspected," Mr Truss says.

"Our approach is to be alert to what is happening overseas and to take appropriate preventive action," he says.

Dr Barnard says Australia, being far off from most of the countries, enjoys the advantage of isolation and would like to protect the advantage.

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