It has been well publicised in various reports, articles and even the occasional TV feature, that UK pig farmers are struggling to make a living in the face of record high feed prices, restrictive EU legislation and cheap foreign pork undercutting the domestic market.
Now it appears that they could face another, altogether more destructive challenge in the form of porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (PEDV); a disease that leads to serious intestinal distress, severe diarrhoea and vomiting in pigs.
Moderate strains of PEDV have been common in the UK since the disease was first identified in the country in 1971, but historically these strains caused relatively minor and treatable health problems amongst infected animals.
Now, a new virulent form of PEDV is spreading across America, causing severe pig mortality rates within US farms and there are fears that this disease could find its way to UK shores.
How did it reach the United States? Nobody is quite sure, but the strain is a 99% match to that which has lead to the deaths of over one million pigs in China, so Asia is blamed as a likely source.
Whilst PEDV causes no harm to humans and does not pose a food safety risk, its affect amongst pigs is serious; on infected farms mortality rates of 100% amongst piglets are not uncommon and currently there is no known cure for diseased animals.
Whilst the addition of electrolytes and minerals into water supplies can help to significantly increase the survival rate amongst infected mature pigs, piglets – with much weaker immune systems – soon die from dehydration and exhaustion.
Trying to isolate and contain the infection has proven to be incredibly difficult as PEDV has a very short incubation period of 12-48 hours and the symptoms are very similar to those of transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TEGV); a common and relatively harmless porcine illness.
As such, farmers in the United States are struggling to contain the disease and since its identification in May of this year it has spread over a wide geographical area. In total there are now 330 confirmed cases of the disease, in 15 states, stretching from Ohio to Oklahoma.
With herd losses standing at around 50% of original herd size, the United States Agricultural Department has urged farmers to take serious precautionary measures to try and stop the disease. These include the disinfection of vehicles entering pig units, cleaning of animal trailers and even changing clothes if visiting multiple farm unit sites.
Farmers are also urged to make sure that any infected animals spread the disease to the rest of the applicable herd as soon as possible.
Although this may seem like a rather bizarre course of action to take, it makes sound sense, even though its results may be destructive. By following such a strategy pig keepers enable their animals to build up immunity to the disease and reduce the risk of secondary infection in animals that could otherwise catch the disease, recover and then catch the disease again; a situation that poses far greater mortality rates in older pigs.
Whilst there are currently no reported cases of this new strain of PEDV in the UK, sector leaders are understandably concerned about its possible spread across the Atlantic; especially if preliminary research is proven to be correct and the disease did find its way from mainland China to the US in the first place.
This concern is amplified by the experiences UK pig keepers endured in the year 2000 when a similar disease – postweaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) – struck the UK and lead to the eventual loss of over half of the nations pigs.
As such the National Pig Association (NPA) has called for a sector wide approach to try and prevent the spread of the disease into this country, outlining a series of precautions that every pig owner should now take, no matter what the size of the pig keeping operation.
Any visitors to pig units who have travelled abroad recently should adhere to a three day ‘cooling off’ period from the point of return into the country and actual visitation of sites.
Pig owners are also being urged to be cautious with regards to sourcing any feed which may contain components originating from foreign sources and to be extra vigilant about making sure that no meat enters the feed system; as well as adhering to usual bio security measures.
The NPA is also advising that any vehicles entering pig farms are disinfected, animals displaying abnormal behaviour signs quarantined and vets to be immediately called out if PEDV symptoms are noticed within a herd.
The new, virulent form of PEDV is proving to be an exceptionally nasty and devastating disease; one that desperately needs to be kept out of this country. UK pig farmers have had enough of a tough time as it is and one has to hope that the measures outlined by the NPA (combined with a bit of luck), will be enough to keep the disease out of the country.
If not the UK pig industry could find itself facing another challenge, but one far more destructive and costly than it has had to face for years.