AFRICAN swine fever (ASF) has hit China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and North and South Korea, and it is likely to spread to other countries in Asia, including Malaysia.
Outbreaks are also occurring in Eastern Europe – Belgium, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia – according to updates from the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) as at July 24.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes it as one of the most severe viral diseases affecting swine production systems.
China has culled 1.16 million pigs after its government detected it in August last year, while Vietnam has culled some three million pigs since February, and Cambodia and Laos a few thousand each.
The virus does not affect humans and other animal species except for pigs and wild boars, but Malaysian consumers are likely to avoid eating pork “to be on the safe side”, as the Nipah virus outbreak experience has shown, says pig health and production consultant Dr Henry Too.
The Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in 1999 occurred when the virus jumped from pigs to humans, causing over 100 deaths and the near collapse of the local swine industry.
He says that if ASF spreads to Malaysia, it can hit the industry badly and even bankrupt some farmers.
Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Sim Tze Tzin recently told the media that an ASF outbreak would not only affect individual farmers' livelihoods, but could also cost the industry and its related businesses RM5bil in losses.
Malaysia has more than 600 pig farms nationwide, including Sabah and Sarawak, with a swine population of 1.5 million.
The states with the most pig farms are Perak, Penang, Johor and Malacca.
Lack of cooperation
The spread of ASF from China to South-East Asia is inevitable due to the cross-border movement of animals, people and goods from China into countries that share a common border with it, as well as between South-East Asian countries themselves – and a lack of bio-security measures is making it worse, according to Dr Too.
“In Asia, getting cooperation from farmers is extremely difficult," he says, adding that from his experience working with Malaysian farmers, there is a tendency for them to keep mum if their pigs are infected because they fear that the DVS will order them to stop moving pigs out of their farms, which increases the risk of them losing the whole herd.
However, he points out that if the pigs in a particular farm are hit with acute ASF, chances are they are going to die regardless, but at least, by informing the DVS, the farmer can help stop the virus from spreading to other farms.
In a separate interview with The Star, DVS director-general Datuk Dr Quaza Nizamuddin Hassan Nizam noted that there is a law in place to stop the movement of animals whenever an outbreak is confirmed.
“But farmers have to be forthcoming and inform us if there is a problem, and we'll investigate. It is not possible for the DVS to check all the pig farms nationwide,” he says.
To date, the DVS has inspected 387 out of 614 commercial pig farms in eight states.
Farmers tend not to cooperate with the authorities during livestock epidemics as they fear losing their business completely.
As such, compensation for pigs culled during an outbreak would enable the implementation of early measures to halt further spread of the disease to other farms, says Dr Too.
This will save a lot more government money as the proper culling and disposal of dead pigs would be more costly if the outbreak is left unchecked, he adds.
“The subject of compensation in the event of affected herds being culled must be discussed”.
Sim says his ministry will ask for a token sum from the government for farmers in the event pigs are culled.
Cut out cheap sales
More importantly, farmers need to avoid buying pigs that are still alive and look healthy in “cheap sales” during an outbreak.
These pigs may actually be incubating the virus and can spread the infection to other pigs, says Dr Too, adding that this is how the Nipah virus epidemic is believed to have started.
At that time, pig-farming villages in Ipoh, Perak, were holding “fire sales” (panic selling during a disease outbreak), and infected pigs were bought and transported to Bukit Pelanduk, Negri Sembilan, he says.
“I hope the same thing will not happen in the event of an ASF outbreak, because some farmers may be tempted to recoup their losses by selling pigs that still look healthy.
“Don't do that,” he told the 200 farmers, private companies and government agencies attending his talk African Swine Fever: Epidemiology, Trans-Boundary Incursions in South-East Asia and Clinical Diagnosis at a forum on July 17, 2019.
Another farmers’ practice that needs to be addressed is swill feeding, which may contain contaminated pork or pork product waste that can lead to an outbreak, he says.
Although most of the country's pig farms are fed with industrial feed, there are some farms that still do swill feeding, such as the high density farms in Tanjung Sepat, according to Dr Too.
“Farmers should stop using such feed and use industrial feed.”
DVS’ Dr Quaza notes that swill feeding is prohibited under state enactments, but admits that this is difficult to monitor as farmers may quietly feed their pigs with food waste collected from restaurants.
Dr Too advises farmers to suspect ASF if their adult or vaccinated pigs suffer symptoms that look like classical swine fever (CSF), although the two viruses are unrelated.
“That's because most farmers are already controlling CSF through regular vaccination and are not likely to face CSF outbreaks,” he says.
Beef up biosecurity
Unfortunately, biosecurity in some Malaysian pig farms is lacking.
Dr Too says that the management and biosecurity of some farms is so poor that they are not much better than backyard farms in neighbouring countries.
“They’re just as vulnerable,” he says, adding that it helps that Malaysia does not have outdoor pigs wandering around as all commercial pigs are reared indoors.
On July 17, 2019, Sim, the minister, had given pig farmers two months to fully implement proper biosecurity measures on their farms in order to prevent an outbreak.
Other concerns are pig catchers who travel from farm to farm to buy pigs and send them to the abattoir, and the lack of adherence to sanitation measures in the farms.
Federation of Livestock Farmers' Association of Malaysia pig unit head David Lee describes the catcher lorry as “the most dangerous lorry”, due to its potential for spreading infection.
Although pig catchers should be prohibited from getting down from their lorries in the first place, if they want to enter farms, they should take a shower, change into a uniform and wear farm boots or go through a foot dip, he says.
Farmers also need to disinfect and wash the lorry, dip the wheels in disinfectant and disinfect the lorry parking dock.
Due to the concern of infection spreading from other farms, some farmers have even bought their own lorries to deliver their pigs.
Visitors to pig farms should also be restricted during this period.
“If visitors or suppliers or salesmen want to talk, they should talk outside the farm,” said Lee during his talk Current Level of Biosecurity and Animal Husbandry Practices as Risk Mitigation Against the Introduction of ASF into Malaysian Pig Farms.
Farmers and their workers are also advised against eating pork brought from the outside and not to enter their farms for seven days after travelling to a country with an ASF outbreak, he says, adding that good management at the feed store and farm is also needed.
“It's important for farmers to adopt biosecurity measures or they can end up bankrupt if hit by ASF,” he says.
Don’t buy pork online
As a precautionary measure, the DVS has imposed a ban on imports of pork and pork products from ASF-infected countries.
All pork products from infected countries will be destroyed at entry points, says Dr Quaza.
Sim urges the public to stop buying and bringing in suckling pigs from neighbouring countries.
He also warns the public against buying them online as the source of the pork is unverified and unknown.
Dr Quaza says consumers turning to buying pork products online, especially during an outbreak, is a global challenge as it could help spread infection.
Even though ASF does not harm humans, the DVS does not advise people to eat diseased meat or to feed it to pigs.
Even if ASF enters the country, it is not all doom-and-gloom if biosecurity measures are in place to prevent it from getting into farms, says Dr Too.
Dr Quaza notes that while it helps that Malaysia has no backyard farms, it all boils down to how stringent farmers are in putting biosecurity barriers to safeguard their farms.
The authorities meanwhile, are taking all the necessary measures and contingency plans to minimise the damage, he says.
“We will try out best. If it fails to prevent the entry of ASF, at least we will reduce the impact.
“The main thing for all parties is to know what to do,” he says.