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Published: Saturday May 3, 2014 MYT 12:45:00 AM
Updated: Saturday May 3, 2014 MYT 7:32:05 AM

Virus epidemic kills 1 in 10 pigs in US, still no cure in sight

The non-human-threatening Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) has wiped out more than 7 million or 10% of pigs in the US in the past year, crushing the livelihood of farmers while sending pork prices to record highs.

John Goihl, a hog nutritionist in Shakopee, Minnesota, knows a farmer in his state who lost 7,500 piglets just after they were born. In Sampson County, North Carolina, 12,000 of Henry Moore’s piglets died in three weeks. Some 30,000 piglets perished at John Prestage’s Oklahoma operation in the fall of 2013.

The highly contagious PEDv is puzzling scientists searching for its origins and its cure and leaving farmers devastated in ways that go beyond financial losses. “It’s a real morale killer in a barn. People have to shovel pigs out instead of nursing them along,” Goihl said.

PEDv was first diagnosed in Ohio last May and within a year has spread to 30 states. Since June 2013, as many as 7 million out of 70 million pigs have died in the United States due to the virus, said Steve Meyer, president of Iowa-based Paragon Economics and consultant to the National Pork Board said.

Under threat: Piglets under 21 days old are most at risk of dying from PEDv. Infected sows usually recover and acquire immunity that they pass to their litter. 

The losses represent more than 10% of the pig population in the US, meaning the virus has decimated at least 1 in 10 of the pigs nationwide.

Even though PEDv does not pose a risk to human health and is not a food safety issue, it’s presenting farmers and health authorities with an escalating bill to keep up with the increasing losses.

With pork prices at an all-time high of US$3.83 per pound (RM22 per kg), the loss of baby pigs are cutting into profits for hog farmers. US packing plants may produce almost 2% less pork in 2014, according to Ken Mathews, USDA agricultural economist. The National Pork Board has spent about US$1.7mil researching the virus, for which there’s still no cure.

In mid-April, the USDA responded to calls for more reliable data and classified PEDv as a reportable disease, a step that requires the pork industry to track its spread. “It’s a positive step that I wish they had taken last summer when it became obvious this was spreading rapidly,” said Meyer.

Mysterious origin, swift killer

Months of forensic research so far have turned up no clear evidence of how the disease entered the US. The virus is nearly identical to one that infected pigs in China’s Anhui province, according to a report published in the American Society of Microbiology journal mBio.

Researchers also are exploring whether the widespread use of pig-blood byproducts in hog feed might have introduced the disease.

There have also been outbreaks in recent years in Europe, Japan, Mexico and parts of South America, though in milder forms than seen in the US and China. The disease has also taken root in Canada, where the pork industry is deeply integrated with US pork production.

PEDv thrives in cold, damp environments, and after slowing last summer its spread accelerated during the past winter. In mid-December, there were over 1,500 cases but by mid-April, that had more than tripled to 5,790, according to USDA data. Of nearly 15,000 samples tested for PEDv about 32% have been positive.

The virus “acts like a lawn mower” on the villi in a pig’s intestines, which are the tiny projections that aid digestion, said Tony Forshey, chief of animal health at the Ohio Department of Agriculture. With their villi gone, the piglets cannot absorb nutrients from food or water, contract diarrhea and die from dehydration. PEDv is nearly always fatal in pigs younger than 21 days.

So far, no vaccine has been able to completely protect pigs from the disease. An Iowa company, Harrisvaccines Inc, has made some progress, while pharmaceutical giants Merck Animal Health and Zoetis Inc have joined with universities to begin vaccine development. “There is no silver bullet for PEDv,” said Justin Ellis, marketing manager at Alltech, which developed a feed additive designed to reduce risk of the disease.

The disease is spreading even as farmers and truckers impose stricter cleanliness measures across the so-called Hog Belt, which stretches across most of the US Midwest and Plains States and extends south to North Carolina, the nation’s No. 2 hog producer. Iowa ranks first.

Most farmers and researchers believe PEDv is transmitted from pig to pig by contact with pig manure. “Something like a tablespoon of PEDv infected manure is roughly enough to infect the entire US hog herd,” said Rodney ‘Butch’ Baker, swine bio-security specialist at Iowa State University. “It’s a complete lifestyle change. In the past, the truckers haven’t thought of bio-security much.”

Some hog farmers prohibit outside visitors. Others require workers to change clothes when entering and leaving barns. Truck drivers wipe down the step into their cabs, disinfect their steering wheels and change boots or wear disposable booties before entering farmyards.

The industry wants truck washes to use fresh water instead of recycled, since PEDv can live in room temperature water for up to 13 days, a University of Minnesota study said. “The only truck I regularly allow on site is the feed truck and last November I told the driver not to get out of the truck,” said Bill Tentinger, an Iowa farmer who so far has kept PEDv at bay.

The extra washing, drying and disinfecting can consume at least two hours and cost up to US$500 per load, industry sources said.

Bright yellow signs marked “PED” are popping up outside North Carolina farms warning the virus is present. One-third of North Carolina’s 3,000 hog farms have been struck by PEDv since the first diagnosed case there in June 2013, the state says.

So many piglets have died that Tom Butler, a farmer who fattens hogs for market in southeastern Harnett County, is having difficulty finding animals. His herd is down 25% to 6,000 pigs, costing him more than US$100,000. “We were spiraling downhill for a while but I think we’ve levelled off,” Butler said. “The industry is learning to cope.” – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Animal, pig, PEDv, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, viral, US, piglet

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