Pig disease runs amok, wild

A virus that is “probably the worst disease we have on this planet” for pigs is seeping into central Europe, spreading across Russia’s central Asian expanses and on the threshold of breaking into China.

African Swine Fever (ASF) could devastate some of the world’s most important pig herds and provide Canada’s industry with market opportunities.

“We’re not getting this under control,” said British swine veterinarian John Carr at the Manitoba Swine Seminar Feb. 8.

“This has the potential of seriously affecting the European ability to market their pigs.”

ASF has been spreading in Europe for a decade, since a load of infected African garbage was fed to pigs in Georgia in April 2007.

ASF can live inside meat for two years and is easily contracted if that meat is fed to pigs. It is not a human health concern but kills pigs with horrifying speed.

Countries hit by incidents are usually blocked from exporting pork and pigs, so it is a nightmare for export-based hog industries.

Previously the Netherlands and Spain have suffered cases but have managed to get control of the situation.

The disease spread within Georgia and then into Russia. Once in Russia, it spread in all directions and has grown within the zone of political instability along Russia’s borders. The disease is in Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and Kazakhstan.

Cases have appeared along the sprawling Siberian border all the way out to eastern Mongolia, putting it just north of China, which has almost half the world’s pig herd.

“I have African swine fever within 500 kilometres of (a Chinese farm I manage),” said Carr.

“If ASF moves into China, we have a serious problem.”

Anxiety is growing in central Europe as the disease moves toward Germany’s giant herd. The Poles have been fighting to stop the disease spreading beyond its border region with Belarus, but appear to be failing, with cases gradually moving west.

A case has also appeared in the Czech Republic, which signifies that ASF has moved into central Europe.

Carr said the greatest worry is what happens if the disease makes it out of farms and into the wild pig population. If that happens, little can be done to permanently eradicate it.

Similarly in China, if the disease makes it down to the tropical region, it could end up in ticks, which are the source of its spreading in Africa.

“If it gets into ticks, we’ll never get rid of it.”

The chance of the disease getting to Canada is low, Carr said. It can’t spread by wild pigs wandering, since they would have an ocean to cross.

If it does appear here, it would probably be due to people bringing in meat and allowing pigs to eat it. That could come through sandwiches or “on something like a pizza because the guys that make pizzas are going to use the least quality meat they can, and if the meat is cheap, they’ll put it onto pizza.”

Carr suggested Canadian farmers remind food safety officials to ensure they are restricting travellers trying to bring in food they shouldn’t.

And he encouraged barn operators to keep focusing on biosecurity.

“The nice thing about (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) might be that it actually improves our biosecurity,” said Carr.

“That might protect us from diseases like African swine fever.”

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