Animal health experts: Plan ahead in case of foreign animal disease outbreaks

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pigs in barn
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

WOOSTER, Ohio — Foreign animal diseases may not be in the U.S., but they’re still a big deal for the country. Some, like foot-and-mouth disease, have been here before. Others, like African swine fever, have shown up in places including the Dominican Republic, but have not yet arrived in the U.S.

All could disrupt the U.S. and global industry. And it’s impossible to know if a pig has a foreign animal disease without testing.

“You cannot tell what these diseases are just by looking at the pig,” said Ellen Yoakam, a veterinarian in the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s animal health division, at a Jan. 19 meeting on biosecurity planning and foreign animal diseases for swine farmers.

Yoakam and other speakers urged swine producers to call the department of agriculture, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s veterinary services, if they see their livestock come down with anything that involves an unusual amount of deaths, or blisters or vesicles on the animal.

“Unusual, unexplained symptoms should always be reported,” Yoakam said.

African swine fever

There are several foreign animal diseases on the radar right now, including classical swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, but African swine fever is one of the most discussed.

The virus does not affect food safety or public health, but it is very contagious for pigs. It can spread from animal to animal, on clothes or vehicles that go between farms, through ticks, mosquitoes and biting flies and possibly through feed or feed additives. Infected feral hogs could also spread the disease to domestic hogs.

“There’s a lot of ways that, once this virus is around, it can be spread further,” Yoakam said.

The virus can also survive for some time in chilled, frozen or cured meat, so the USDA and the department of homeland security have ramped up efforts at the borders to keep people from smuggling in pork products.

After an animal is infected, it could take anywhere from three to 21 days to show symptoms. There is a long list of symptoms, including fever, discoloration, diarrhea, sudden death, tiredness, piling, going off feed and abortions.

While researchers are working on developing a vaccine, there currently is no vaccine for African swine fever.

Farm impact

If a farmer reports possible symptoms of a foreign animal disease in a hog in the U.S., the first steps is for a vet to visit the farm and take samples for testing.

Regulatory officials also ask the farm’s owners about things like the symptoms they saw, biosecurity on the farm, whether they have been out of the country recently and whether anyone who works on the farm also works on other farms.

If test results confirm a foreign animal disease, officials and the farmers have to make plans to depopulate the herd, safely dispose of carcasses and disinfect the farm and restock after a fallow period. The USDA provides indemnity payments for euthanized animals, based on their market value.

The USDA and state department of agriculture would also set up control zones and disease surveillance areas around the infected farm.

U.S. impact

But impacts wouldn’t just be limited to the farm with the sick animals. If a U.S. farm had a foreign animal disease infection, the secretary of agriculture would immediately take steps to declare an extraordinary emergency. There would be a national order to stop moving swine for 72 hours. That could lead to export markets closing and prices dropping.

After that stop order, the goal would be for the industry to keep going, with some changes. That includes permits for moving on and off infected farms and in control zones around those farms. Farms that are not infected will be able to continue business, with some requirements, like biosecurity practices.

But that’s all a worst case scenario, said Rebecca Ita, of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Just because a farmer sees worrying symptoms and has to get an animal tested doesn’t mean their farm will be the start of an outbreak.

“I want you to just keep in mind that in general, chances are you’re going to be negative,” Ita said. “Our goal is to make you prepared, even though we think and hope that this won’t happen.”

Biosecurity

To help avoid positive test results, and to help keep the industry moving if a foreign animal disease does come to the U.S., biosecurity is important.

“After the shock, we as an industry, we’re going to need to continue our lives,” said Andreia Arruda, assistant professor with Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “So, in this case, there’s a plan for it.”

The Secure Pork Supply plan, which is voluntary and developed by industry groups, state and federal officials and universities, offers farmers a way to prepare.

It provides resources for creating site maps and biosecurity plans with a veterinarian — the types of thing farmers will need in order to get permits to move livestock and carry on other activities if there is an outbreak. Farmers can also request a national premises identification number, which would allow regulatory staff to let them know more quickly if they are in a control area during an outbreak.

While biosecurity can be complex, parts of biosecurity plans are very simple, she said. For example, a visitor log can help farmers keep track of who has been on the farm. Testing and isolating new animals can also help prevent disease spread.

Ohio State and the U.S. and Ohio departments of agriculture are planning several more meetings on foreign animal diseases around Ohio. Future meetings are planned for Feb. 2, at the Champaign County Extension Office; Feb. 16, at the Putnam County Extension Office; and Feb. 22, at the Athens County Extension Office, all 6-7:30 p.m.

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