'Just Around The Corner': What An Outbreak Of African Swine Fever Would Mean For Australia
It's been described as "potentially the biggest animal disease the world has ever seen" and it's slowly, but surely, making its way towards Australia.
African swine fever (ASF), a serious viral disease which can affect both wild and domestic pigs, kills about 80 percent of the animals it infects.
The disease has seen a dramatic movement from eastern Europe through to Asia in the past year and decimated pork industries in several countries.
In China, pig herds are estimated to have decreased by about 30 percent since the fever arrived in late 2018, according to Federal Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie.
McKenzie said the disease is "marching" towards Australia and concerns about the potential impact on the domestic industry sparked an emergency round table meeting of industry leaders on Friday.
With less than 10 percent of domestic pig meat by value destined for overseas, McKenzie warned that Australians would be "hard hit, should the unthinkable happen to our pork industry."
According to the government, there are 2,700 pig producers in Australia and around 36,000 jobs that rely on their businesses.
President of Pork Queensland Inc. John Coward said at this stage there likely isn't a single Australian pig farmer left who isn't aware of the risk that ASF poses to Australian animals and biosecurity.
"All farmers are 100 percent conscious of the fact that the African Swine Fever is spreading basically uninterrupted from Asia," Coward told 10 daily.
Coward believes the disease could be "just around the corner" for the Australian industry if strengthened prevention mechanisms aren't put in place now.
Fortunately, Australian pigs have never previously been infected by swine fever and Coward said the biggest benefit to the domestic industry is that Australia is on an island, making it easier to keep out these dangerous diseases threatening our livestock.
How Could ASF Make Its Way Into Australia?
According to Coward, there are two main ways that ASF could make its way into Australia.
The first is via Indonesia, with, for example, fisherman bringing in infected animals on boats across the Australian coastline.
The second, and what Coward argues is the most likely scenario, is from people illegally introducing meat into Australia from our quarantine borders.
While Australia has some of the most strict biosecurity laws in the world, Coward said there's always a risk that people will get something through without declaring it.
"And if that's fed back to a wild pig or a rat, for example, it can then spread the disease to our domestic wild pigs," Coward said.
"Once it's there, there's something like 7-10 million wild pigs and they just roam quickly across the countryside."
Pigs can become infected by direct contact from another pig or through cross-infection from soft ticks or rodents which carry the disease from an infected pig.
"If a pig is infected in Australia where there's never been ASF before, Australian pigs that come in contact with the disease have a mortality rate of 98 percent and they will generally die within 4-10 days."
What Does An ASF Outbreak Actually Look Like?
ASF causes haemorrhages to the skin and on the internal organs of pigs.
There is currently no vaccine and no treatment for the disease, meaning once a pig is infected any direct contact with another pig will see the rest of the herd infected as well.
If a domesticated pig were to become infected in Australia, Coward said the farmer would start seeing symptoms in his herd within days and after the animals are immediately quarantined, a positive diagnosis would see the entire herd destroyed and a circle of confinement established to stop the movement of pigs around the area.
Coward said an Australia outbreak would be as bad as getting foot-and-mouth disease into the population.
What Can Be Done?
From a human health perspective, the disease is relatively harmless, meaning people can consume the infected meat without it causing any problems.
But, consumers can then pass the virus through their bodies and back into the environment again, Coward said.
The best prevention tool starts at Australia's points of entry.
"People importing and not declaring illegal substances like meat, sausages and the like from pigs pose a huge threat to our industry," Coward said.
So beefing up our border control is important and beefing up security at the farm gate level are vitally important.
But he urged that the most important step would be for stricter surveillance and reviews at border control to prevent people illegally bringing in infected eat.
The government for its part says it "hasn't been sitting on our hands".
McKenzie said authorities had ramped up inspections of people and mail arriving from countries affected by the disease and claims that since then border control had seized 23 tonnes of pork from African swine countries, of which 15 percent had tested positive to the virus.
"We've suspended trade of high-risk pork products from affected countries and we've banned travellers bringing in pork jerky from all countries," she said.
"We need everyone to take biosecurity seriously and make sure they don't become a vector for a disease that could decimate our domestic pig industry and way of life by doing the right thing when bringing things into the country."
Featured Image: Getty
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