by Sally Colby

A PennAg event held recently in Lebanon, PA, encompassed the Keystone Pork Expo, Poultry Progress Day and the Mid-Atlantic Manure Summit. USDA veterinarian Dr. Paul Pitcher presented information on the USDA’s role in addressing several swine diseases, including African swine fever (ASF).

Pitcher said if ASF reaches the U.S., it’s important during the early stages that information funnels only through the USDA. “We are the face of the industry for the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s extremely important that the message is tightly controlled at the very beginning of the situation because this disease has huge implications for international trade.”

The swine industry is conducting active surveillance for ASF, which involves collecting tissue samples from dead animals at slaughter plants, livestock markets and buying stations. “We’re just trying to see what’s out there,” said Pitcher. “The more we get the more confidence we have there’s nothing out there.”

Disease incident response planning is an ongoing program in several states, and includes how to put together an incident command structure and response program. “There’s a learning curve,” said Pitcher, “but an opportunity to deal with it at the front end.” Informal initiatives include constantly seeking signs of foreign animal disease in livestock markets. Pitcher regularly visits the New Holland auction to examine pigs, looking for vesicles and other signs of disease and determining whether intervention is necessary.

Industry awareness, including what’s going on in the livestock markets, is also critical. Pitcher said they observe the behavior of patrons of livestock markets – are they following the rules? Where are pigs coming from, and where are they going? “We understand those things by knowing patrons at the markets,” he said. “We regularly detect deviations from what the expectations are, and we aren’t averse to confronting people.” One issue is being aware that pigs are for immediate slaughter only, and Pitcher said he’s had some interesting responses to that.

Meat inspectors are being provided with more tools to detect clinical signs and lesions that are critical in discovering foreign animal diseases. “When they do inspections, they’re on the lookout for various things,” said Pitcher, “but we’re trying to get them to focus more on looking for lesions. We’ve also been assisting in enhanced biosecurity plans and evaluating those plans.”

USDA is working to identify potentially threatening locations, exposures and practices. “Think about hunting preserves,” said Pitcher. “Wildlife Services has told us that most of the feral swine in Pennsylvania are escapees from hunting preserves. If we want to control the threat from feral swine, we need to look at where hunting preserves are and where are the farms around those preserves? Are they conventional farms or outdoor pasture-type farms?”

Efforts also including watching swine operations that feed garbage. Pitcher said there’s a lot of garbage feeding the USDA doesn’t know about, which makes that aspect difficult to control.

USDA has a want list that includes what they’d like to develop for the future, including greater collaboration with partners such as the CDC and foreign countries to manage zoonoses (animal diseases that infect people). “Identify and support areas of higher ASF risk,” said Pitcher. “By supporting diagnostics in those areas, we’re looking at foreign animal disease diagnostics and also domestic disease diagnostics with hopes that we’ll capture information on whether ASF is emerging.” The concept of “stamping out” is what the USDA hoped to use to control ASF in the U.S., but that idea isn’t working well.

Pitcher outlined what’s happening with ASF around the world. “China had some recurring outbreaks earlier this spring,” he said. “Informal estimates from private industry indicate that they lost another seven to eight million sows this spring.” The Chinese swine industry is about five times the size of the U.S. swine industry, so the loss was about 20% of the country’s entire swine industry.

Myanmar has been without incident until some new cases of ASF were recently detected. Five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor, South Africa and Uganda – are reporting new ASF infections. “The Philippines recently declared the presence of ASF and they’re in a state of calamity,” said Pitcher. “They’ve had about three million pigs die this spring – about 25% of their industry obliterated.” The Philippines are the eighth largest producer of pork in the world, so this is a significant loss. About two-thirds of the pigs in the Philippines are backyard or outdoor pigs and not commercial enterprises.

Vietnam, also a large swine producer, has experienced a second wave of ASF. Europe reports many cases of ASF in wild boar, with about one-third of the cases in Hungary. There are currently 7,100 active cases with a 50% increase from 2020. Germany also has cases of ASF-infected wild pigs in two states. The country has spent more than $10 million on fencing in an attempt to get the problem under control. There have also been outbreaks in backyard herds in Romania, and several new outbreaks in large Russian herds.

“The countries that struggled the hardest early were China and Russia, and they’re making very little progress,” said Pitcher. “Think about how the industries are structured in some of these countries and guess as to why that’s happening. For example, in China, slaughter capacity is widely dispersed among a lot of tiny slaughter plants, which is in great contrast to how we slaughter pigs in the U.S. Maybe that’s a factor.”

Pitcher said learning to watch for early signs of any illness, including ASF, is critical. The attitude of sick pigs can range from normal to reluctant to stand to lethargic or will not stand. Respiratory signs range from normal breathing to rapid, labored or open-mouth breathing.

“ASF is not like a hurricane,” said Pitcher. “It takes a long time for it to become clinically apparent – usually seven to 10 days before you really know there’s a problem. It’s important to monitor for clinical signs, and when you see something and it’s worse the next day or the day after, that’s the time to get in touch with your veterinarian.” Data collected regularly by the owner and/or managers helps the herd vet determine what’s going on.

Observation isn’t rocket science – it’s simply a matter of looking at the pigs. “One of the best tools is a five-gallon pail,” Pitcher said. “Sit on that for five or 10 minutes and use your senses. What am I observing that’s abnormal? Maybe the pig wants to lie down under the water – why is it doing that? Does it have a fever? The pigs will tell you whether they’re happy or not.”