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Can China contain African swine fever?

4th Oct 2018 / By Alistair Driver

With the number of outbreaks continuing to rise, there are growing concerns over China's ability to control the spread of ASF. 

pigs ChinaThe OIE's global animal disease database showed 29 cases had been confirmed in the country by the end of September, following confirmation of the first case on August 3. The cases have been confirmed across eight regions, including most recently Mongolia. The furthest cases are thousands of kilometres apart. 

In a detailed report on the global situation, CNN quotes the OIE's deputy director general for international standards and science Matthew Stone. He said: "An outbreak of African swine fever is a very serious event. The authorities of countries affected are under extraordinary pressure."

He believes that the movement of live pigs or pig meat has been 'instrumental in both initiation but also propagation' of the virus in China.

Dirk Pfeiffer, chair professor at City University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences in Hong Kong, suggested the wide geographical spread is due to the 'extensive live pig trade network in China'. "Food waste is being widely fed to domestic pigs, which if contaminated with the virus, will greatly facilitate spread," he said. 

Where there is 'significant illegal trade in live pigs, pork or food waste for feeding pigs', it becomes 'virtually impossible' to find the source of the virus, he is quoted as saying. 

China has put in place various control procedures such as a movement ban of pigs and pork products from affected to unaffected provinces and culling on at-risk farms, plus moves to identify the source of the virus and which other areas could have undetected infections. The feeding of pig swill (food waste) has also been banned.

However, given the size of the country and the number of outbreaks, Prof Pfeffer believes there is a need for more trained veterinary staff who are familiar with the virus.

Concern over the spread of ASF in China has also been voiced by Genus' Jim Long, a well-known commentator on the pork sector. 

"In our opinion it will be hard for China to stop ASF," he said. "They will try but we have been in Russia for ten years, we have seen ASF there. We know Russia has tried to stop it and have made an excellent effort but so far have not been successful. Russia has land and strict bio security systems and protocols.

"The sheer scale of China's industry and hog density makes the effort even more daunting."

Europe spread

Globally, more than 361,000 infected wild boars and domestic pigs have been reported to the OIE, with more than 119,000 deaths in 2018, according to the CNN article, which also looks into the spread of ASF within Europe, including the recent outbreaks in Belgium. 

Humans were the 'most likely route of infection' for the boars in Belgium last week, according to Linda Dixon, researcher in genomics of ASF at the UK's Pirbright Institute. Since the infected pigs were found in a forest area, more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from any infected territories, she suspects that people consumed infected meat products and then left them in the forest where wild boars ate them.

For the latest news on ASF plus detailed advice on keeping the virus of UK pig herds and preparing for an outbreak, see our dedicated ASF section.