African Swine Fever Closes in on Southeast Asia: Thailand, Vietnam and Neighboring Countries Scramble to Prevent Contagion
More than half of China’s pigs are raised in unhygienic backyards that are virtually impossible to regulate. Many pigs are also fed kitchen waste, or swill, which may contain infected pork.
China’s African swine fever outbreak is creeping toward Southeast Asia, alarming authorities and pig farmers alike. Since August, when it was first detected in the northwestern province of Liaoning, near North Korea, the highly virulent pathogen has spread to 20 Chinese provinces.
More than 70 outbreaks have been reported, and more than 600,000 hogs have been culled. The number is a tiny percentage of China’s more than 700 million pigs, which make up about 55% of the global population, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Pork is the primary meat in China, which means African swine fever, sometimes dubbed ASF, has the potential to undermine the country’s food industry and affect global food supplies. There is no vaccine. At the beginning of this month, the virus was detected in the village of Guanfang, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, less than 200 km from Myanmar and Laos.
[Just recently], Thailand’s Department of Livestock Development reported that ASF had been detected in sausages that Chinese tourists had brought with them on a flight from the city of Chengdu to Chiang Rai, according to Thai media reports. Chiang Rai is located in the north of Thailand, near Myanmar and Laos. The department in September banned the import of pigs and pork products, stationing personnel at borders and in airports to enforce a quarantine, according to earlier news reports.
JeerasakPipattanapongsophon, Deputy Director-General of Thailand’s Department of Livestock Development, last month admitted the situation is grim. “If the disease spreads into Thailand,” he said, “it will cause massive damage to the country’s pig-farm industry.”
Thailand’s pork industry, worth $3.3 billion a year, is considered the region’s most advanced. Charoen Pokphand Foods and Betagro together account for some 40% of production. By some estimates, up to 80% of Thai pork is raised on large farms, which should improve biosecurity and quality. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam raise hogs in far more basic conditions.
Vietnam is taking similar measures as Thailand, and Cambodia, which sits between the countries, is trying to raise awareness of the outbreak and work with officials in neighboring countries.
In Myanmar, 90% of “domestic pork production currently relies on smallholders” and is “inefficient by international standards,” according to the Myanmar Times. The situation is similar to that in China, which leaves the country vulnerable to the outbreak.
In Cambodia, there are fears the fever could decimate the country’s pork industry. “[ASF] is a major concern for our farmers,” SrunPoav of the Cambodian Livestock Raisers Association told The Phnom Penh Post in early September. “If this disease spreads to our country, the industry could collapse. The virus could kill all the pigs in the country within a week of its introduction in Cambodia.”
The speed of transmission is of particular concern. Vincent terBeek, the editor of Pig Progress, an animal husbandry magazine, noted that in Europe it took the virus eleven years to travel 3,000 km from Georgia to the Czech Republic.
“In China, however, the virus spread from Shenyang in northern China to Wenzhou, south of Shanghai, in about three weeks,” he said. “That equals a distance of 2,100km.”
More than half of China’s hogs are raised in unhygienic backyards that are virtually impossible to regulate. Many pigs are also fed kitchen waste, or swill, which may contain infected pork. Chinese authorities have implicated swill in 23 ASF cases investigated so far, while only one case has involved a wild boar. The exceptionally robust pathogen can also be transmitted by ticks and in pork products. People can also spread the virus if it gets on their shoes or clothing or in their vehicles, though the virus is harmless to humans.
In early September, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization convened an emergency conference in Bangkok to review the threat from China. Officials from Cambodia, China, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam received a dire warning from WantaneeKalpravidh, Asia Regional Manager for the FAO’s Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases. “It’s critical that this region be ready for the very real possibility that ASF could jump the border into other countries,” she said.
A case has already been reported in central Japan. As a result, Taiwan has banned imports of live pigs, pork, and related products from Japan. The island’s government has also banned the online sale of meat products from China, according to Focus Taiwan.
North Korea is a wild card. The border it shares with China is close to where the outbreak began, but the country is known for its reporting deficiencies.
China is suffering the most. Chinese are the world’s most voracious pork eaters, with the average person consuming 28.5kg every year, according to Statista, a statistics portal. On top of the ASF threat, Beijing in July slapped a 25% tariff on American pork imports. Since a pork shortage has the potential to apply significant inflationary pressure and spark social unrest, the government maintains frozen pork reserves as a safeguard.