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'Biggest Animal Disease Outbreak We've Ever Had on the Planet': Swine Fever Spreads Like Wildfire Across Asia

"We have no way to stop it from spreading."

An outbreak of African swine fever has forced farmers in China and Vietnam to cull 1.2 million pigs since last August. (Photo: @m_takahashi/Twitter)

Officials across Asia are reportedly calling on farmers to diversify their farms to offset the effects of the rapidly spreading African swine fever, a virus that's forced the region to slaughter millions of pigs in recent months.

The fever, which is believed to be harmless to humans and is also known as pig Ebola, has been spreading across Southeast Asia at an alarming rate since last August, forcing pig farmers to cull the animals by the millions and causing the price of pork, a widely-used meat worldwide, to soar.

The epidemic is "the biggest animal disease outbreak we've ever had on the planet," according to Dirk Pfeiffer, an expert on African swine fever.

"It makes the foot and mouth disease and [mad cow disease] outbreaks pale in comparison to the damage that is being done," Pfeiffer told The Guardian. "And we have no way to stop it from spreading."

African swine fever (ASF) causes pigs to die from internal hemorrhaging, and passes easily across borders as the virus can survive for several weeks in vehicles used to transport pigs. There is no vaccine for the disease, and contaminated animals must be slaughtered to stop it from spreading.

The culling of over one million pigs in China and two million pigs in Vietnam—six percent of the country's supply—has caused global pork prices to soar by 40 percent.

"The price impact will be sizeable," Christine McCracken, and animal protein analyst at Rabobank told Agence France Press (AFP). 

As Wandile Sihlobo, an agricultural economist in South Africa, wrote on Twitter, Vietnam's leaders are asking farmers to diversify from raising pigs and begin raising other animals including ducks and chickens. Pork currently accounts for 75 percent of the meat consumed in Vietnam, and about 50 percent of workers are employed by the agriculture industry, including pig farms.

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Vietnamese pig farmer Tran Van Chien told Bloomberg News that the latest outbreak forced him to raise new animals to avoid further economic damage to his business.

"Low prices, epidemics, and environmental contamination related to pig manure are all behind my decision to part with pigs after more than two decades," Chien told Bloomberg. "I hope my new path will be more stable and can help me become free of debt."

As The Guardian reported, experts are concerned that farmers desperate to keep their businesses afloat will avoid reporting outbreaks on their farms and that banning livestock and pork imports in Asia would only lead to a lack of regulation.

"Problems included the lack of compensation for pig farmers in south-east Asia whose herds were culled, giving them little reason to report a disease outbreak, and fears that banning movement of pigs and pork across borders would only create a 'black market which would be impossible to control,'" according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization regional manager Dr. Wantanee Kalpravidh, who spoke with The Guardian.

But South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have imposed fines up to $8,400 for smuggling in pork products, with Japan establishing quarantine stations at major airports in case travelers bring anything into the country that may be contaminated.

"We're trying to crack down on all possible routes," a Japanese animal hygiene official told the AFP.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) addressed the ASF outbreak at its annual World Assembly last month in Paris.

"Global control of ASF needs to be understood and managed at local, regional, and global levels , including by preventing further spread through movement of animal and animal products," reported OIE. "In addition, comprehensive communication and awareness camp a ign tailored to country's needs and realities , should be implemented worldwide."

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