Vet issues shock warning on African swine fever risk

BANFF, Alta. — Swine veterinarian Dr. Egan Brockhoff is scared. That’s what he told about 720 hog producers and industry stakeholders at the Banff Pork Seminar Jan. 10.

Here’s why:

  • One case of African swine fever in Canada would close international borders for at least six months and probably longer.
  • The illness has similar symptoms to other swine illnesses and could easily be overlooked.
  • Many or most of Canada’s thousands of small outdoor and organic hog operations do not have adequate biosecurity to guard against ASF.
  • Humans are spreading it around the world by travelling with uncooked pork products.
  • European wild boar, an invasive species prolific particularly in Western Canada, can spread the disease but there is no wild boar surveillance or data on their numbers and location.
  • The virus can survive for months in chilled meat and indefinitely in frozen meat.
  • It can travel in imported feed ingredients, and some amino acids used in Canadian production are only available from China, where ASF is a major and spreading problem.
  • ASF has steadily spread since the 1950s and nine European countries have reported 1,000 new cases within the last four months. Some of them are Canadian trading partners.
  • There are no vaccines.

Brockhoff’s presentation at the Banff Pork Seminar was a chilling reminder to about 720 people in attendance. The industry has been watching ASF spread in China and elsewhere with trepidation but hearing the gravity of the threat to Canada underlined the point.

ASF symptoms of red bellies, bloody diarrhea and eye redness look similar to those of other viruses.

“This disease worries me a lot because it’s a disease that I think we could miss in the early days,” said Brockhoff. “It’s a disease that I think will circulate in a barn for maybe up to a week before anyone will start to wonder what’s going on.”

As a reportable disease, discovery would quickly trigger a national response and attempts to contain and eliminate it. Once the first farm is infected, “every other farm in Canada immediately will have trouble accessing cash.… Banks will pull their operating loans because your inventory is no longer worth anything.

“This terrifies me. Within days of border closure with an African swine fever, we’re going to have trouble accessing feed. We’re going to have trouble accessing money. We’re going to have trouble absolutely accessing a market.”

Brockhoff visited China in December and noted the high level of anxiety within the country’s hog industry.

“In China they don’t have the ability to euthanize and destroy pigs and so they’re burning them alive. They’re burying them alive. They’re struggling to deal with the virus.”

Swill feeding, a common practice in China, spreads the disease and government efforts to stop pig movement has created “night markets” with farmers circumventing those efforts, said Brockhoff.

Much of the spread in Europe has been through uncooked pork, transport of infected meat and infection of wild pigs.

“Humans are spreading this disease around the world,” said Brockhoff. “This virus is moving and it’s moving in a significant way.”

The virus is highly concentrated in meat, muscle and body fluids of pigs, so when an animal dies, whether from the illness or at slaughter, all meat is infectious. The virus can live for months in bone marrow, chilled meat and frozen meat and survives in smoked and salted products as well. It can only be killed by cooking to 60 C.

Yet travellers continue to carry meat to other countries. On a recent flight from Shanghai, Brockhoff said his seat-mate had a backpack full of food, including pork. Brockhoff assumes the virus has been to Canadian airports, where any confiscated meat is burned immediately if it is discovered.

However, there are only 17 sniffer dogs at Canadian airports. Brockhoff said the pork industry has asked that three times that many dogs be put into service.

Another major worry is the lower level or lack of biosecurity in Canada’s estimated 6,500 small, backyard and/or organic hog operations, he added. Infection in any one of those could be easily missed initially and spread to other farms and commercial barns.

“They’re hungry for information,” Brockhoff said about smaller operators. “They want to do the right thing.”

Infection in Canada’s wild boar population would be impossible to control because numbers and locations are unknown.

North America has never had a case of ASF though it was found in Cuba and Haiti in the 1950s and 1960s. ASF circulates naturally in African wild pigs, warthogs and other species but they rarely show clinical signs. In contrast, said Brockhoff, domestic pigs are highly susceptible, as are European wild boar.

It has spread broadly across Eastern Europe and is now in Western Europe, including Portugal and Belgium.

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