BANFF, Alta. — These are dark days for the 400-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation in Alberta that was infected with porcine epidemic diarrhea virus in a case confirmed Jan. 7.
Baby pigs that would otherwise face slow death from dehydration and malnutrition are being euthanized.
Every movement on and off the farm in recent weeks is being analyzed and considered as a possible vector of infection and movement of people and pigs is restricted in efforts to contain the virus.
All of that is part of managing and investigating Alberta’s first case of PED, which has previously affected hog operations in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
The affected farm is in east-central Alberta, according to several sources not directly connected to the ongoing investigation.
The exact location has not been officially released but owners of neighbouring farms have been informed and a quarantined perimeter is in place.
Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director for Alberta Pork, said the farm is fully co-operating with the investigation and reported the outbreak as soon as symptoms were confirmed as indicative of PED.
“If it ever has to happen to somebody, it sure is nice that it happens to a producer that understands he needs to protect the rest of the industry too, and that’s what they’re doing right now, to make sure they don’t harm anybody else.”
Fitzgerald said the farm last shipped hogs a week before seeing viral symptoms in its animals. Since PED manifests itself very quickly, there is greater hope that it has not spread. The packing plant where the last load of hogs was shipped has reportedly tested negative for the virus.
It is easily spread via the fecal-oral route and can travel on trucks, footwear, clothing and virtually any other surface to which manure can cling. Thus tracing the source of the virus can be complicated.
There is no vaccine to prevent PED infection, although there is a treatment so sows can impart immunity to the next generation of piglets.
Dr. Blaine Tully, a Manitoba veterinarian who has dealt with PED-infected farms in that province, said it’s unfortunate that Alberta’s first PED case is in a farrow-to-finish operation because infection can move through each phase of production, making it more difficult to control and eliminate.
“Every week you’re going to be weaning piglets into this facility that might have dropping levels of virus, until we add piglets that eventually become susceptible when their moms’ protection wears off and then they go through another.… It just keeps the disease cycle going,” said Tully.
“My advice would be … everyone else except that one farm, just consider all of your contact points with slaughter plants, assembly yards, whatever. Those are high-risk events and you need to think of them as already being positive even if they’re not, and adjust your biosecurity accordingly.”
Fitzgerald said Alberta is using information gained from the experience of other provinces in dealing with the virus.
“We’ve benefitted from their misfortune of getting it before us because our staff was able to go out there and help them and get trained and understand what to do,” he said.
PED is reportable in Alberta and some other provinces but not nationally because it does not affect human health, other animals or food quality. That means it should not have any international trade implications for the hog industry, Fitzgerald added.
However, it will take a financial toll on the infected farm and potentially the entire industry if allowed to spread.
He said given the nature of the virus, most Alberta producers have considered its arrival in the province to be “not if, but when,” and because of that they’ve implemented biosecurity measures designed as a safeguard. The industry has also developed protocols to implement now that the virus has arrived.
However, Fitzgerald and Tully both said it is difficult for hog operations to maintain strict biosecurity day in and day out, particularly if there haven’t been any outbreaks.
Swine veterinarian Dr. Egan Brockhoff calls it “PED fatigue,” and Tully said that’s an accurate description.
“What we’ve talked about in our client base in Manitoba is that if biosecurity is convenient for you, it’s not working for you,” he said. “People get fatigued with extra protocols and so it’s really just that continued awareness, just keeping it in their face. Unfortunately, that’s just what it comes down to.”
At some point the affected farm will have to ship finished hogs to market and Fitzgerald said work is underway to determine the safest way to do that. On the positive side, he added there are no other hog operations near the affected farm.
That differs from the experience in other provinces, where operations are close together and the virus was more easily spread from one to another.