Amid the coronavirus pandemic, another disease outbreak is affecting thousands of animals in Assam. Since February, over 2,900 pigs have died in the state due to African Swine Fever (ASF), which does not affect humans but can be catastrophic for pigs. This is the first time that an ASF outbreak has been reported in India.
In September 2019, the outbreak of the disease swept through pig populations in China — which is the largest exporter and consumer of pork — leading to large scale cullings. As a result, the prices of pork shot up by over 50 per cent in the country over pre-outbreak levels.
African Swine Fever: How did the current outbreak start?
As per the latest update issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the current outbreak of ASF has affected China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Republic of Korea and Indonesia among others. In China, the first ASF outbreak was confirmed in August 2018 and since then more than 1 million pigs have been culled in the country. In Vietnam, the ASF outbreak was confirmed in February 2019 and since then over 6 million pigs have been culled.
Officials believe ASF came into India through Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh and then into Assam, the state with the highest population of pigs in the country. “There is a province (in Tibet) which borders Arunachal Pradesh. It could have possibly travelled from there but that is only what we suspect,” said state agriculture and animal husbandry minister Atul Bora told The Indian Express.
Even so, the route of infection remains unconfirmed. Pradip Gogoi, Deputy Director, Animal Health Centre, North Eastern Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, Khanapara said, “This virus can be carried by wild pigs too, so one cannot say for sure how and where exactly it entered Assam since we still have not been able to determine the route yet.”
Late last month, the Assam government decided to ban the slaughter and sale of pork awaiting test results of samples that were sent to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD) in Bhopal. It was later confirmed that the samples were positive for ASF.
Pigs from two districts of Arunachal Pradesh have also tested positive as per the NIHSAD test results. According to DR ND Minto, Director of the Animal Husbandry, Veterinary & Dairy Development (AHV&DD), over 1,000 pigs have died in the state.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), between 2018 and 2019, the disease spread was notified in three countries in Europe and 23 countries in Africa.
What is African Swine Fever (ASF)?
ASF is a severe viral disease that affects wild and domestic pigs typically resulting in an acute haemorrhagic fever. The disease has a case fatality rate (CFR) of about 100 percent. Its routes of transmission include direct contact with an infected or wild pig (alive or dead), indirect contact through ingestion of contaminated material such as food waste, feed or garbage or through biological vectors such as ticks.
The disease is characterised by the sudden deaths of pigs. Other manifestations of the disease include high fever, depression, anorexia, loss of appetite, haemorrhages in the skin, vomiting and diarrhoea among others. It is important that determination of ASF is made through laboratory testing and it is differentiated from Classical Swine Fever (CSF), whose signs may be similar to ASF, but is caused by a different virus for which a vaccine exists.
Even so, while ASF is lethal, it is less infectious than other animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. But as of now, there is no approved vaccine, which is also a reason why animals are culled to prevent the spread of infection.
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Any country with a pig sector is at risk of the spread of the disease and its spread is most likely via meat arriving aboard ships and planes, which is incorrectly disposed of and by meat carried by individual travellers. The ASF causing virus is believed to have entered Europe for the first time in 1957 when it was introduced into Portugal from West Africa.
How is ASF different from swine flu?
Swine influenza or swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs, which is caused by type A influenza virus that regularly causes outbreaks of influenza in pig populations. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while the swine flu causing virus leads to a high number of infections in pig herds, the disease is not as fatal and causes few deaths. Specific swine influenza vaccines are available for pigs.
The swine flu viruses are spread among pigs through close contact and through contaminated objects moving between infected and uninfected pigs. Symptoms include fever, depression, coughing, discharge from the nose and eyes, eye redness or inflammation.
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Further, while swine flu viruses don’t typically infect humans, cases have been reported in the past (for instance during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic), most commonly when humans have contact with infected pigs. When humans are infected with swine flu viruses, the symptoms are similar to human seasonal influenza and include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing.
How is the Assam government planning to deal with the disease?
Since ASF has no vaccination, it is advisable that the infected pigs are culled. “Culling is the only option but we are not doing that right now,” said Bora, adding that they would if the “situation demanded it.”
Currently, the dead pigs are undergoing deep burials, with salt and bleaching powder. However, cases of pig carcasses floating down rivers have been reported from districts in Assam. In Kaziranga National Park, seven carcasses were detected floating down the Brahmaputra.
The authorities have advised all pig farmers to contain the spread through bio-security. “Pig farms along with one km around it are considered containment zones,” said Bora.
This is one form of quarantine for the pigs, according to Manoj Basumatary, President, North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association (NEPPFA). “Since this disease spreads through contact, it is important. The area is cleaned with disinfectant and the pigs are not let out. We are trying to create awareness about this,” he told The Indian Express, adding that containment policy for the affected district is not enough.
“All Northeast states should follow this and fight this together since the states have very porous borders,” he said.
What is the impact ASF will have on pig farmers?
Pig farmers in Assam describe the outbreak as a “double whammy” since the COVID-19 lockdown was already impacting sales negatively. “Because of COVID-19, there was no feed, no sales,” Basumatary said, “Earlier it was just sales. Now, with the new disease, there is an air of uncertainty.
According to him, the outbreak also ruins the prospect of the Northeastern states as a hub for the export of pork products. “We were working on making Northeast a hub and exporting its pork products to other places but with outbreak, it has derailed a lot of plans,” he said. The export of pork from the states has been banned since the disease was reported.
Is the government trying to help the farmers?
Bora said that the government was trying to formulate a plan to help the pig farmers who have suffered losses because of the disease. “Many young people are involved in the pig farming business,” said Bora, “We are figuring out how we can help them.”
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on Monday asked the Veterinary Department and Forest Department to work with the National Pig Research Centre of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Rani to “draw a broad roadmap to save the state’s pig population from African Swine Fever.”
Sonowal also directed the Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Department to find out how many entrepreneurs were engaged in the sector so that the government can announce a bailout package for them.
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