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Vet on call: Why China’s swine fever scourge should worry you

Saturday November 30 2019

David Njuguna feeds his four-month old piglets at Green Estate in Elburgon.

David Njuguna feeds his four-month old pigs at Green Estate in Elburgon. The Food Agriculture Organisation recommends strong disease control support from the highest level in government and a good state of preparedness in a country, including disaster planning and well-laid-out standard operating procedures to control the African swine fever. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
By DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
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The last time I discussed African swine fever (ASF) in this column was on August 3, 2018. In the article, I highlighted the devastation the disease had done on various farms.

At around the same time, unbeknown to most Kenyan farmers, their Chinese counterparts had just begun experiencing the same problem.

It was the first emergence of the disease in the Asian country, which is the largest producer and consumer of pork globally.

The Chinese outbreak has run amok. It has turned out to be a pig holocaust, threatening to completely get out of control not only in the country but also in most of South East Asia and other neighbourhood nations.

According to reports from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the disease has to date spread to Mongolia, Republic of Korea and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. Of the 11 South East Asian countries, only Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are still free from the scourge.

The others comprising Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Lao People’s Democratic Republic are struggling with the disease. Vietnam, Timor-Leste and Myanmar have also had their unpleasant encounters with the swine scourge.

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This severe outbreak may appear very far from us in Kenya but it has an ominous potential to reach us and other parts of the world.

Nations such as Australia with geographical proximity and robust trade relations with the affected regions are on high alert as the disease rages in their neighbourhoods and people and goods keep moving across borders for leisure and commerce.

A pig farmer asked me whether farmers in Kenya should be concerned with the Chinese-South East Asian ASF outbreak. My answer is a big yes.

Well, it is always said that one’s misfortune may be another’s opportunity. Americans are seeing it better this way than anyone else.

A look at the American forecast for global pork prices indicates the ASF outbreak has already driven up prices and may continue doing so for some years even if the disease is put under control, due to the losses the pig industry in Asia has already suffered. This is an opportunity to supply pork to the huge Chinese and South East Asian market.

MINIMISE THE RISKS

Before the outbreak, the Chinese pig population was estimated at about 500 million. In Kenya, the population stands at 350,000 pigs.

China is estimated to have destroyed about 1.2 million pigs due to the outbreak. Many farmers have also depopulated their farms to minimise the risks.

Vietnam, on the other hand, is reported to have slaughtered about six million pigs due to the infection. The net result is a great reduction in pork supply, leading to an increase in prices.

The disease outbreak in the Chinese neighbourhood and South East Asia means that China cannot bridge its deficit with regional supplies.

It is unfortunate that Kenya is yet to finalise its meat trade protocols with China. The favourable trade and development cooperation between the two nations would have been highly favourable for Kenyan pork producers to help China bridge her pork deficit by specifically producing for the Chinese market.

This is a lesson that we should always be prepared to trade our goods in the international markets by embracing internationally accepted production and processing standards.

On the negative side, the ASF outbreak could still spread to Kenya and other regions unless concerted efforts are employed to contain it in the affected countries.

This fear is not far-fetched because we have seen other diseases in the past spreading from one region to another. In the past 20 years, some of the diseases that have spread across the world include avian and swine influenza in poultry and humans, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in humans, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in camels and humans and Ebola in humans.

In 1918-1919, the deadliest global influenza outbreak occurred and spread widely. It infected some 500 million people and killed about 50 million worldwide. The virus is now known to have mixed human and avian influenza genes.

THERE IS NO CURE

At the time of the influenza outbreak, there were neither vaccines to prevent the disease nor antibiotics to treat the bacterial infections that complicate influenza attack.

Control of the outbreak was mainly done by non-pharmaceutical interventions comprising isolation, quarantine and good personal hygiene. Use of disinfectants and limitation of public gatherings were also employed.

The Chinese ASF outbreak echoes the global influenza outbreak, only that it just affects pigs. It would be a human nightmare if the ASF virus jumped species and became infective to humans.

There is no cure for ASF and almost all the animals that get infected die. To add misery to pork producers, all animals in infected herds must be destroyed to control the disease. In some countries like the Philippines, all pigs within 1km of an infected farm must be slaughtered.

The South East Asian countries and China have found it difficult to control the outbreak due to their low levels of hygiene, biosecurity and public awareness about the disease.

The large number of pigs in the countries and heavy consumption of pork also complicate disease control intervention. Kenya may have done well in control of the disease due to our small pig population and the fact that pork is not widely eaten in the country, hence limiting the spread of the disease by humans.

For effective control of ASF, FAO recommends strong disease control support from the highest level in government and a good state of preparedness in a country, including disaster planning and well-laid-out standard operating procedures.

Such a level of preparedness would lead to improved early warning, detection and notification of a disease outbreak or risk of the same, with early reaction.

FAO also recommends prohibition of feeding food leftovers to pigs and involvement of pig producers and allied stakeholders in the development of ASF control strategies.