The re-emergence of African swine fever in Europe and China is a troubling development. The distance across the ocean is large, but recent research and modelling suggests that hog producers in North America should pay attention.
ASF is a horrible disease that is not dissimilar in its effects to porcine epidemic diarrhea.
It spreads quickly, it kills quickly and violently, (pigs generally die of hemorrhaging within five to 10 days), it takes an enormous economic and emotional toll on farmers and economies, but while research has recently produced a vaccine for PED there is none for African swine fever.
It is not harmful to humans, but in many places, one infected hog results in the destruction of the entire herd. About 180,000 hogs have been culled in Romania alone, which experienced 42 outbreaks in just a few weeks.
Anyone watching the speed at which ASF is spreading through Europe and China must understand the need for important biosecurity measures in North America.
It took 40 years to wipe out ASF in Europe after it struck in the late 1950s. It struck again in Georgia in 2007 and, until recently, had been progressing slowly, mainly in Eastern Europe. But now it has hit 14 regions in China, home to half the world’s pigs. And it is progressing faster through other countries, including Iran, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland and now has been found in Belgium for the first time. France, Germany and Denmark are especially concerned, since western Europe’s hog industry is concentrated in the region. In Germany, there are calls to cull hundreds of thousands of wild boar. Denmark is looking at building a fence across its border with Germany to keep the animals out.
Until recently, it was believed that ASF spread mainly through infected pigs and carcasses (on farms and wild boars), and items such as clothing, boots, soil and even skin and hair. It has also been known to survive up to 1,000 days in frozen meat.
It is not airborne, but it can be transported in ticks, particularly on wild boar.
New research suggests it may also be carried in feed. It’s now thought that ASF can survive trans-Atlantic shipping in feed ingredients for up to 30 days.
On top of that, tourism can play a role. Canadians make four million trips to Europe every year. The disease spreads so quickly that contagions on clothing or one meat sample can spark an outbreak.
How damaging would it be if ASF were to hit North America?
One estimate says the U.S. pork industry would take a $16.8-billion hit. Canada has 13.7 million hogs on farms and the about about 21 million hogs are slaughtered annually. The industry is responsible for about 30 percent of all livestock in Canada and generates about 10 percent of farm cash receipts.
Although the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reports the disease is “terrorizing” pig farmers in Europe, here is no reason to panic in North America — but it is prudent to take extra precautions.
Travellers who visit farms in any of the infected countries must not be blasé. It’s important to tick the box on the customs sheet asking if you have visited a farm on a trip. And don’t bring any meat products home from those areas.
As well, the industry must hasten research into the potential for ASF to survive in feed ingredients.
Time and distance used to be on our side. But the world has changed. With diseases such as ASF, so must we.