Close-Up 2016 African swine fever is gaining ground

Photo: Reuters

It has kept pig farmers in Eastern Europe in suspense for years and cost the Lithuanian state alone millions. Despite numerous precautionary measures, African swine fever continues to spread.

It is the dread of the pig farmers: African swine fever, an incurable disease against which there is no vaccine. Harmless to humans, infected pigs perish in few days. This week, the latest outbreak was registered in Poland. It is the 19th outbreak there alone this year.

From Georgia via Russia to Poland

As early as the 1990s, African swine fever broke out in Spain and Portugal. At that time, a further spread could be prevented. Then, in 2007 new cases cropped up in Eastern Europe and it spread rapidly. The disease was detected in western regions of Georgia in April, and a month later it had spread throughout the country. Infected wild boars were also found in Russia and two years later, wild boars had brought the virus all the way to Iran.

In 2013, the EU already took steps to prevent the spread of the disease in Europe. Lorries from Russia had to be disinfected before they were allowed to travel to the EU. Nevertheless, the disease has continued to spread. In the meantime, African swine fever has been found in Estonia, large parts of Lithuania and Latvia, in the eastern border areas of Poland and even on the Italian island of Sardinia. Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and various African countries are also affected.

Huge losses for Lithuania’s farmers

In 2014, more than 20,000 pigs had to be slaughtered in Lithuania alone, because a large farm was affected by the virus. In 2015, the disease only broke out on small farms and a total of 50 pigs had to be killed. But the number of suspected cases is rising again. In addition, the epidemic was recorded at several remote locations. This year, 74 pigs had to be slaughtered in Lithuania on suspicion of swine fever. Alone last week, nine cases of swine fever were registered there.

African swine fever is mainly spread by wild boars African swine fever is mainly spread by wild boars | © picture-alliance/WILDLIFE Over the past two years, the fight against the spread of the epidemic has cost the Lithuanian state and the pig farmers about 24 million euros according to estimations by Lithuanian large-scale farmers. They expect losses of around two million euros in the coming six months.

1.6 million euros for Lithuania’s battle against the epidemic

Small farms with under 100 pigs are the hardest hit. In order to curb the further outbreak of the disease, the Lithuanian government pays 100 euros for each pig if they are within the 30-kilometre radius of a risk zone, which they will slaughter as a precaution until November. Larger farms are paid the difference to the price they would earn on the local market for their animals because pigs from risk areas can no longer be exported. The supply on the local market surpasses the demand by far – the prices are at rock bottom. The Lithuanian government, together with funds from the European Commission, has earmarked 1.6 million euros for compensatory payments.

Paulius Buschauskas, a specialist in the state food and veterinary services, does not believe that many farmers can be urged to give up their pig farming through compensation, however. Farmers in retirement age have a monthly income of 300 to 400 euros, so for them, one pig is an important food source.

Elaborate precautionary measures

In most cases, wild animals – mostly wild boars, but also flies and ticks – carry the virus to the farms. People can also carry the virus on their shoes, for example, if they go into the forest to gather berries and mushrooms.

Farmers in Poland and Lithuania must comply with strict precautions Farmers in Poland and Lithuania must comply with strict precautions | © picture-alliance/dpa/J. Dabrowski In order to protect their farms from the virus, the farmers put special disinfectant carpets at the stable doors in endangered areas. It is forbidden to keep the pigs outside and feed them with table scraps.

If an outbreak occurs, all of the pigs on the farm must be slaughtered, the carcasses properly disposed of and the stables disinfected. The contaminated meat may not be consumed directly and also not be processed.

Protests by animal protection advocates

“You have to put an end to the disease,” warns Algis Baravykas, head of the Lithuanian pig breeders’ association. “Otherwise, it will continue to spread throughout Europe.” The biggest danger is from wild boars.
In order to prevent further spreading, officials are considering whether and how the wild boar population can be regulated. In the Lithuanian Parliament, someone suggested that hunters should be able to use sighting devices for night hunting. This has led to protests by animal welfare organizations. They do not want the forests to become “slaughterhouses.”