The Quarantine: can be extremely effective for pigs, sheep – and humans

This Wednesday I heard an Iowa hog farmer explaining how his vigorous quarantine measures are helping keep his farm clean of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv), even though he’s surrounded by outbreaks and is in the most highly concentrated pig barn counties in the United States. Since Christmas PEDv has been within half a mile of Bill Tentinger’s driveway.

How has he kept his farrow-to-finish operation clean? By quarantining it and insisting on “the little things,” like not letting feed truck drivers get out of their trucks and watching out for unrecognized dangers – like the wallet protruding from his barn worker’s pocket one day. “Where did he lay that wallet? Maybe he laid that wallet on the counter of the local (convenience store,)” said Tentinger, explaining his vigilant thought process. That wallet was soon safely stowed where it couldn’t fall out in the barn, and he relaxed a tiny bit.

But only momentarily, because the price of freedom from PEDv for him is constant vigilance. Whether it will work in the long run to keep him free can’t be known, but it offers hope to hundreds of hog producers across Western Canada who might be tempted to become fatalistic about the seemingly inexorable spread of the disease. It showed up in Manitoba a few weeks ago on a single operation and just yesterday a second case was confirmed, near the Saskatchewan border.

(If you want to see a 10 minute video of Tentinger’s comments as part of the panel at the Manitoba Pork Council annual meeting click on this link to see the video I shot.)

I remember Mark Fynn of the Manitoba Pork Council in January urging farmers to not assume they would inevitably get the disease, even if it showed up near them. First try to keep it out of Manitoba by controlling those critical contact points between out-of-province, off-farm traffic, then if it shows up, focus on contact points between farms and trucks within Manitoba and the Prairies, especially those going to feed plants and slaughterhouses.

I found everything Tentinger said heartening, since it was a healthy antidote to the feeling of dread and resignation many in the industry feel about PEDv, which just keeps spreading. I also found it making me think of other quarantines I know about from personal experience within my family, both successful, which followed much the same attitude that Tentinger was demonstrating.

I have cousins in the sheep farming business in northern England. Their area was hit by the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, with many of their neighbours being infected and all their neighbours losing their herds as part of the national eradication strategy. My cousin is a veterinarian, so she knew something about how to control a disease outbreak and what a quarantine would require, so the family set up a farm quarantine that they maintained through the crisis. But knowing how to do it didn’t make it easy. Her husband didn’t leave the farm for six months. My cousin worked off-farm but whenever she drove back to the farm she would wash down her vehicle hundreds of metres from the farm yard. Fortunately, it worked, and their herd and farm survived. But it was only fanatical devotion to controlling risks that allowed that success to occur.

I can’t help thinking of a stressful time in my own immediate family’s life when a quarantine became vital. In 2011 my daughter Ana was born with a heart condition that would eventually require surgery. She went into heart failure at six weeks of age, spent three weeks in the Children’s Hospital here in Winnipeg, then struggled along with a failing heart for another three months – propped by a number of medications – as the doctors attempted to keep her growing so that the surgeon would have a bigger heart to work on. If she got sick with anything and went into heart failure again, they’d fly her out for emergency surgery. The medications and tube-feeding were enough to keep her growing slowly, but my wife and I were fanatical about keeping her free of the dozens of colds and flus and other germs that endlessly float around the world of children – and we have two other children slightly older than Ana.

We imposed a strict quarantine on the house, keeping out all visitors during those months, with me being the only one who regularly left to go to work. We told friends, people from our church – and door to door salespeople and fundraisers – to please stay away from the house until everything was better. Fortunately most of the crisis occurred during the summer, so even though the kids were restricted to our home, they were able to play in the back yard. I remember washing my hands a lot. And always worrying. I also remember my three-year-old (at the time) biting her nails a lot and grinding her teeth, so I think the stress level was high for everyone. But the quarantine worked, we got Ana through, surgery was successful, and we could go back to being unworried about colds and start acting like normal people again.

That sort of stress is being felt on a lot of hog farms right now, as hog barn owners fret about PEDv coming their way, workers worry that they’re going to do something that causes an outbreak and then get blamed for it, everyone worries that an outbreak will occur and they’ll have to engage in the devastating process of euthanizing hundreds of sick piglets. Tentinger said a couple of farms near him became infected right at Christmastime, and even on Christmas morning barn workers and managers had to go in and kill piglets.

“Think about the people who have to deal with this ugly process,” advised Tentinger.

Beyond the financial costs, avoiding worker and farmer trauma should be motivation enough to re-commit to enforcing a strict quarantine around all barns on the Prairies, and embracing the belief that PEDv is not inevitable on any particular operation. Quarantines can work. Tentinger has managed to stay PEDv-free for a year since the disease appeared. And most of us have personal experiences, like those I’ve shared above, that prove that they can be effective. It’s not pointless to try.

Statistics about weekly outbreaks and geographical spread can be dispiriting, but fighting PEDv will be done farm by farm, and there’s no reason you can’t win your fight and stay clean. It’s unquestionably worth it.

Check out the video. It’s good advice.

About the author

Ed White — Ed White has specialized in markets coverage since 2001 and has achieved the Derivatives Market Specialist (DMS) designation with the Canadian Securities Institute.

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