Southeast Asia is battling to contain the spread of highly contagious African swine fever, known as “pig Ebola,” which has already led to the culling of millions of pigs in China and Vietnam.
African swine fever, which is harmless to humans, but fatal to pigs, was discovered in China in August last year, where it has caused havoc, leading to more than 1.2 million pigs being culled. China is home to almost half of the world’s pigs and the news sent the global price of pork soaring.
There is no vaccination for African swine fever, which causes pigs to internally haemorrhage until they die, so the only option to contain the disease is to kill any contaminated animals. Some estimates say that in China up to 200 million animals might eventually be slaughtered. The virus can last for several weeks on anything from clothes to vehicles, allowing for it to easily travel long distances.
It has spread like wildfire across Asia, causing growing devastation to the pig farmers of Vietnam and Cambodia, and putting Thailand, Asia’s second-biggest pork producer, on “red alert.”
Cases have increased in Mongolia, North Korea and Hong Kong in recent weeks, while South Korea is blood testing pigs at the border.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) and regional experts fear that Myanmar, the Philippines and Laos will be next, because they are all highly susceptible to an outbreak due to the struggle to control the movement of pigs and pig products across porous borders.
“This is the biggest animal disease outbreak we’ve ever had on the planet,” said Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong and expert on African swine fever. “It makes the foot-and-mouth disease and BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease] outbreaks pale in comparison to the damage that is being done and we have no way to stop it from spreading.”
Currently the battle to contain the disease is being lost.
“There are concerns that the disease will continue to spread across the countries in Southeast Asia,” said Wantanee Kalpravidh, regional manager for UNFAO, who said they believed the swine fever cases being reported by governments in the region were “underestimates.”
Wantanee said that problems included the lack of compensation for pig farmers in Southeast Asia whose herds were culled, giving them little reason to report a disease outbreak, and fears that banning the movement of pigs and pork across borders would only create a “black market, which would be impossible to control.”
The implications of the outbreak are already being felt beyond Asia.
Global pork prices have risen by almost 40 percent and long-term it is likely to lead to more pork imports from Europe and the US to meet demand, which will also push up global meat prices.
Market analyst Rabobank said global pork supplies could fall by 8 percent.
In Vietnam, the first swine fever case was detected in January in northern Vietnam, not far from the border with China.
Last week, Vietnamese Minister of Agriculture Nguyen Xuan Cuong confirmed that the virus had now spread to 48 of the country’s 63 provinces. The country has now culled about 2 million pigs, or 6 percent of the country’s herd, a figure that is expected to rise steeply.
“The world and Vietnam have never faced such an extremely dangerous, difficult, complicated and expensive epidemic as this,” Cuong said in a statement last month.
The economic and social impact is likely to be huge for Vietnam. Pork accounts for 75 percent of all meat consumed in the country. Overall, the agriculture sector in Vietnam employs almost 50 percent of the workforce, with pork farming a significant part of that.
Speaking in parliament, Cuong urged consumers and businesses to stockpile pork ahead of likely shortages toward the end of the year.
The Vietnamese government has also mobilized police and military to help contain the outbreak, but has stopped short of declaring it a national emergency.
In Cambodia, about 2,400 pigs have died or been culled due to the disease in the past two months, while in Hong Kong two separate cases led to there being no fresh pork in the country for a week.
However, Pfeiffer was not optimistic that Thailand — which has more than 2 million pigs — could resist the pandemic spreading from neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia, or China, for much longer, saying it could probably enter “through pork products brought in illegally from Vietnam and China, even if just by tourists or truck drivers.”
“The virus survives so well and there are so many people traveling, particularly between China and Thailand, it’s hard to see how it could be contained for much longer,” he said.
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