Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

Opinion

Swine fever outbreak threatens EU farmers

  • A 240km fence along the German-Polish border was extended last month to prevent wild boars from spreading the disease (Photo: George Hiles)

It is a disease with a high mortality rate, no existing treatment or vaccine, and devastating consequences for society and economies - and it reached Europe years before Covid-19.

Yet African Swine Fever, a highly contagious porcine disease that is estimated to have claimed a quarter of the world's pig population last year, has quietly climbed to worrying new levels in 2020.

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Cases of the viral infection among wild boar on the continent rose in the first quarter by as much as 85 percent compared to the whole of 2019, and is likely to proliferate further as Europe enters the height of summer.

Unless countries take proactive measures to stop African Swine Fever from taking hold in domestic pigs, it is entirely possible that the EU, as the world's second largest pork producer, suffers the crippling economic effects of a second pandemic before it recovers from the first.

As we have seen in China, where an estimated 150-200 million pigs were infected in the recent outbreak, the consequences of this disease are far-reaching, from hiking prices and demand for pork imports to impacting food security and livelihoods.

European countries, including major producers like Germany, France, and Spain, must learn from China's experience, and ensure all measures are in place as early as possible despite the distraction of Covid-19 to prevent the disease from ravaging the pork sector.

Among the most urgent measures needed is the reinforcement of biosecurity, which means taking all possible action to prevent the disease from spreading into new territory.

As we have seen with the emergence of the novel coronavirus, countries with established test, track and trace systems, travel restrictions, and quarantine protocols for new arrivals have best controlled the spread.

Similar strategies designed to keep trade and food systems open should be applied to the pig industry, including rigorous inspections of pork imports, quarantines, and in some cases, even physical barriers.

A 240km fence along the German-Polish border, for instance, was extended last month to prevent wild boars from spreading African Swine Fever.

At the same time, governments, health, and trade agencies should also be engaging with pig farmers, particularly small-scale producers, to make sure they have access to the latest information and guidance to protect animals from the disease.

For example, the UK government, which currently assesses the country's risk of African Swine Fever as medium, recently launched a survey to better understand the current level of awareness about African Swine Fever to help guide future campaigns.

Speed of essence

Being able to quickly and effectively communicate with national producers will be essential in the event that infected animals, products, or materials are found to have entered the country.

Finally, and most importantly, governments and donors should be ringfencing investments into African Swine Fever research as much as possible despite the ongoing pressure from the Covid-19 response.

It is encouraging to see that the animal health industry has continued its research into the disease while also stepping in to help the Covid-19 response by providing equipment and sharing lab facilities.

But the sector needs continued support to develop the first effective vaccine, which is advancing at the Pirbright Institute in the UK.

Meanwhile, Spain's Centre for Animal Health Research (CISA) at the National Institute for Agricultural and Food Research and Technology (INIA) has been designated the EU reference laboratory for African Swine Fever research.

As we have seen from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, diseases can have untold impacts on populations when they are allowed to spread, with severe consequences for the fundamental building blocks of prosperous societies, from food supplies to freedom of movement.

African Swine Fever may not be a direct threat to people's health, but Europe cannot afford to neglect the economic threat this illness poses.

Investments in animal health must be protected now more than ever to minimise the risk of a double pandemic this year.

Author bio

Roxane Feller is secretary general of the Brussels-based animal medicines association, AnimalhealthEurope.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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