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Control of diseases like ASF: what lies ahead?

As the world struggles with Covid-19, the pork sector and the greater global livestock farming community must continue to examine how diseases are best contained, with more zoonotic disease outbreaks to come.

Whilst it is true that the global veterinary and livestock producer community can offer cautionary warnings and practical strategies for those trying to contain Covid-19, that community must also apply its own lessons and continually improve its containment of contagious livestock diseases such as African Swine Fever (ASF). The World Health Organization (WHO) calls for countries to track and trace cases and use other strategies to deal with Covid-19

Viruses like ASF and Covid-19 have disrupted the pig industry, each in their own way. What lessons can be learnt for a next 'new' virus? - Illustration: Shutterstock
Viruses like ASF and Covid-19 have disrupted the pig industry, each in their own way. What lessons can be learnt for a next 'new' virus? - Illustration: Shutterstock

Sharing good practice between vets and doctors

Dr Katharina Stärk is head of the Department Animal Health at Switzerland’s Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office. She and her colleagues stressed in a recent article on LinkedIn that “joint learning, sharing of good practice and general cross-sectoral exchange” between the veterinary community and human medical experts “is an under-exploited opportunity”.

Maximum crisis management responses must become routine

So what are the most valuable insights that veterinary services across the world could share for Covid-19, but also must apply themselves, according to Dr Stärk? “Keeping farmers, hunters, veterinarians and the public alert to signs of infectious diseases and how to avoid their spread (by bringing pork products into another country, for example) is not easy on an ongoing basis. Whether it is human or livestock disease, there is a first reflex that it is not going to be serious, that it is far away and is not going to come here. But we have learned, however, that with diseases such as ASF, we must make maximum crisis management responses routine if we have any hope of containment.”

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Dealing with contagious livestock disease

Looking to the future, in terms of where the veterinary and livestock producer community should try to make progress in dealing with contagious livestock disease, Dr Stärk believes technology to support early detection of disease will need to continue to be examined, but that it must be properly integrated into the decision-making processes. She also believes there must be a focus on strengthening generic competencies. “Know your stakeholders, build trust and relationships with them, and hone your systems for surveillance, testing and communication”, she said. “We cannot know what is coming, but when it comes, all we have are the systems already in place and perhaps some new ones that can be implemented very quickly.”

More zoonotic diseases expected, for livestock and for humans

Dr Julie Brassard, a food and environmental virologist based at Agriculture and Agri Food Canada, and her colleagues study a zoonotic disease (1 that affects at least 2 species), called hepatitis E. Pigs are a reservoir for the hepatitis E virus but are unaffected; people with weakened immune systems can become infected through eating pork from pigs that carry the disease. Dr Brassard and her team have found that this pathogen seems to appear later in the pig’s life, but are not sure how the virus enters a farm or when the animals come into contact with it. They have discovered that it has the ability to persist in the environment, in water and on surfaces.

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Crossing the species barrier

Dr Brassard said it is a possibility that other porcine enteric viruses (rotaviruses, astroviruses, caliciviruses) may also, after a series of mutations, cross the species barrier and infect humans through food consumption. “We are keeping an eye on them,” she said. “Our field research will help prepare us should this ever happen.” And, like many others, Dr Brassard is concerned that more new zoonotic viruses may emerge in populations of farm animals or humans through contact with wildlife. She adds that whilst the emergence of new viruses is nothing new, “factors such as environmental changes, agricultural intensification, destruction of natural habitats and climate change may promote interaction between wildlife, livestock and humans”.