Dark days for the hog industry

PED takes a toll Virus hard 
on animals, heartbreaking for hog producers who get the news and are faced with tough decisions

There is an as yet unexplored human cost to porcine epidemic diarrhea virus.

Dr. Egan Brockhoff, an Alberta veterinarian who has seen PED do its deadly work in Asian and American hog barns, has also seen the emotional toll it takes on hog producers who have it in their barns.

“It’s a heartbreaking disease. This isn’t just going to be devastating to the animals, its devastating for the people,” Brockhoff said in an interview April 2 after speaking to Lethbridge area hog producers.

“I think without question it is extremely devastating to them. You see people just quitting, in the big barns. Some people give it three or four days and then they just say, ‘I can’t watch this,’ because they know they’d have to watch (piglets die) for the next three or four weeks. So there’s a human cost to this disease that we haven’t talked a lot about.”

PED virus is fatal to young piglets and producers can expect near total mortality of newborns. Older pigs stand a better chance of recovery.

It is spread by fecal-oral contact, and even a small amount of virus can grow and cause an outbreak, with symptoms of extreme diarrhea and vomiting in pigs.

Forty-seven Ontario barns were confirmed with PED as of April 4. Single cases in Manitoba, Quebec and Prince Edward Island were controlled before the virus could spread.

The most recent Ontario cases were confirmed in finisher barns, and Brockhoff said PED can be easily missed in older animals because diarrhea can be attributed to several causes.

“It’s often very subtle in mature pigs. A lot of people can miss the disease in a grow-finish population,” he said.

“That creates potential downstream exposure to processors, which creates more potential exposure back to you. So finisher sites have to be more diligent with this than a farrowing site. A farrowing barn is never going to miss this.”

Brockhoff, who is managing PED testing in Alberta, said no virus has been found after taking more than 5,150 samples at federal processing plants, truck washes and assembly yards.

“Don’t rest comfortable with that,” he warned hog producers.

“This is an early detection system.”

He said strict barn biosecurity remains the best protection, which has been emphasized throughout the Canadian industry.

PED is considered endemic in the United States, where it has infected barns in 28 states and killed hundreds of thousands of piglets.

The economic cost of PED is easier to calculate than the human emotional toll, and the Prairie Swine Centre near Saskatoon has attempted to measure the cost of a PED outbreak on the Prairies.

President Lee Whittington said researchers modelled two scenarios; one in which immediate PED identification was made and actions taken, and another in which reaction was less focused.

Assumptions were made for farrowing rate, pigs born alive and pre-weaning losses.

In the best-case scenario, PED infection in a 600-sow farrow to finish operation would cost $216 per sow that year. In the worst-case scenario, the annual cost was estimated at $338 per sow.

“I think it would be quite easy for that scenario to grow to be twice as much losses in the barn where I didn’t jump right on top of that,” said Whittington.

“Hopefully, nobody in this room is ever going to see it.”

Brockhoff said no effective vaccine is available for PED, and the virus can still be a threat even when all pigs in a barn have been exposed.

He estimated that 30 percent of infected barns in the U.S. see further outbreaks. As well, he cautioned against introducing the virus to forestall its more devastating effects.

“Doing feedback today will do nothing for you tomorrow if you don’t have PED. You cannot create (immune response) memory to something that was never introduced originally.”

PED is not a threat to human health or pork quality.

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