We all know that farm animals can get sick. But how many of us are aware of just how damaging animal epidemics can be - whether on the other side of the world or on our own doorstep? They can and do cause huge economic losses and harm to the health of animals and humans, alike. And, there’s ample evidence that, for generations, the model we’ve been using to raise animals in confined, crowded conditions, only magnifies the problems. So why is the Manitoba government prepared to risk even more of the same by massively expanding pork production in a province with an already-large industry? I hope this part of my series will move you, the reader, to ask, “How much worse must things get, before we change course?”
(Warning - the words and images in this story are graphic.)
Losses suffered globally due to diseases of livestock, are staggering. As the Nairobi-Based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) notes, “Some of the most lethal bugs affecting humans originate in our domesticated animals. Thirteen of these (formally called “zoonotics”) are responsible for 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths per year. As more pigs and poultry are raised in concentrated spaces, especially in poorer countries, the risk of zoonotic disease rises. While the vast majority (of casualties) are in low-and middle-income countries, the northeastern U.S. has emerged as a ‘hotspot,’ too!” Whatever the case, the authoritative Centers for Disease Contol in the States reminds us, we in developed countries, cannot afford to be complacent. “We are living in an interconnected world where an outbreak of infectious disease is just a plane ride away.”
In 1999, a virus called Nipah killed more than a hundred people in Malaysia and sickened almost 300 others. While fruit bats had probably been the initial carriers, the victims had all worked closely with pigs, which acted as intermediate hosts. To prevent the spread of the disease, more than a million hogs were euthanized, inflicting tremendous economic losses on the Malaysian economy.
In some cases, "euthenization" involved the dumping of live animals into a pit. (See photo, below.)
Photo by A.P.As the ILRI observes, “Notable examples of zoonotic diseases include ‘Nipah,’ which causes influenza-like symptoms, often followed by inflammation of the brain and death. It spilled over to people from pigs kept in greater densities by smallholders.” Health authorities still regard Nipah as “a growing threat,” not only because it can spread from person-to-person, but because there’s no cure.
While “zoonotics” have not been as common in North America as elsewhere, the same cannot be said for diseases deadly to hogs - outbreaks which have proven - from Mexico to Canada - to be nothing short of rampant.
In 2004, Canadian hog producers, found themselves in the middle of a “major animal-health crisis, worldwide.” A new variant of a disease called “Porcine CircoVirus-2 Associated Disease” (PCVAD), had infected Ontario’s swine herds with a vengeance. It seemed to closely resemble a strain that had first been identified in Saskatchewan 20 years earlier. And, not long before the Ontario outbreak, a similar kind disrupted pork production in parts of Asia and Europe, too.
Lesions “of unprecedented severity” were inflaming the intestines, blood vessels, kidneys and spleen of Ontario herds. In some, fully half the pigs died. PCVAD had become “the dominant strain” infecting barns in both Ontario and Quebec. One study in the journal, “Veterinary Pathology” states, “In the space of less than two decades, this virus has gone from being a provincial oddity to one of the most economically important infectious agents in modern swine production.”
As the outbreak swept on to western Canada, animals were developing rasping coughs, diarrhea, pneumonia, fluid on the lungs, then dying. Within a few years, almost all of Canada’s pig farms had tested positive. As Ottawa put it at the time, “It severely affected the health and livelihood of the Canadian swine industry. Hundreds of producers faced financial ruin and pork processors laid off hundreds of staff. By 2009, the economic impact on the industry in North America had been estimated at more than $500m.”
When it ended, PCVAD had claimed about 9% of this country’s swine herds. Based on a hog population of about 15 million at the time, we must have lost some 1.35 million animals. By 2007, the federal government had stepped in. At the request of producers, Ottawa gave them more than $62 million to help with the costs of an inoculation program. The government proclaimed, “The hog industry is better prepared to face disease threats.”
But, is it?
Last spring, another disease deadly to pigs moved into Manitoba, disrupting the industry to a degree perhaps not seen since the crisis 13 years earlier. Ominously dubbed “Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea” (PED), it infected hogs in scores of barns in southeastern Manitoba. Despite frantic efforts by barn owners and workers to control the infection, it had, by summer, found its way onto 90 farms. At this writing, 42 of those are now described as “PED-free,” once again. But these gains have come at a price. Industry sources confirm, during the struggle to contain the disease, it had become so rampant, and stress levels so high among workers trying to contain it, they were developing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. That’s what our veterans get in combat! There have been no new cases since October. So, is the worst behind us? Or is the epidemic just “in remission?”
A recent study by the University of Manitoba suggests, eradicating the disease won’t be easy. The virus can become airborne and spread on the wind for up to 18 kilometres. It can also withstand cold weather, be spread by livestock trucks, and survive for up to nine months in the earthen storage lagoons which producers use to store the waste. That waste, called slurry, is often spread on farm fields as a fertilizer. (An American expert even says, a single tablespoon may be potent enough to infect tens of millions of animals.)
No hard numbers are publicly available on just how many pigs the outbreak has claimed. But an official said, at one point during the summer, almost a million were under surveillance.
PED causes the animals to spew watery vomit from one end and diarrhea from the other. (See above.) While some adults can survive, almost all infected piglets become severely dehydrated and die on about their fifth day.
Photos by Manitoba Pork.Years before the Manitoba epidemic, the writing was on the wall. The virulent disease was on our doorstep.
By 2013, PED had begun sweeping, with alarming speed through more than thirty U.S. States, devastating the industry. Within a year, estimates on mortalities ranged from three million to seven million. That would have been between five and ten percent of the country’s entire swine population! The cost of pork spiked in the supermarkets. A year or so later, PED had arrived in Ontario.
Then, last year, back in Manitoba, even after PED began taking its toll here, more bad news. Veterinarians revealed that yet another disease, quite different from PED, had found its way into as many as fifteen hog farms in three separate regions of the province. This time, it was an even more virulent strain of PRRS, a virus that attacks the animals’ reproductive and respiratory systems. In the words of one veterinary official, “PRRS causes quite high levels of abortion in breeding herds… stillborn or mummified fetuses at birth and…up to 40 percent…go on to die. Because many of these farms sell animals into commercial slaughter facilities, the risk of further spread increases.”
In another part of the world, the European Union, as you read this, is on high alert. After an absence of decades, a deadly viral disease called African Swine Fever (ASF) “re-invaded” three years ago. It is threatening both EU farm pigs and wild boar, who are believed to carry the disease. Despite heroic attempts by Lithuania, an EU country, to keep it at bay along its border with Belarus , the fever moved in. Then, it swept westward into Poland, the Czech Republic and three Baltic States.
Infected herds must be culled. Photo credit - Science Magazine.
In Estonia, 22 thousand hogs had to be destroyed. Pork prices collapsed and more than a third of Estonia’s hog farms went out of business. The disease is now raising alarm in hog-producing countries like Denmark and Germany. With pork exports there worth billions, the stakes are high. That’s because any country where an infection is confirmed, might lose those markets.
ASF was first reported in domestic pigs in eastern Africa in 1921. It is harmless to humans. But it kills up to 90% of pigs. They start to bleed inside. Blood sometimes gushes from their ears and flanks. Their lungs fill with fluids. They lose their appetite and energy, abort their young and die, suddenly, within ten days. The virus spreads through the secretions of sick animals. It can survive for long periods on workers’ clothes or hay, helping it move from farm to farm. It can travel even farther when contaminated pork is transported. Pigs or wild boar become infected if they eat the scraps.
In a different part of the world, “Public Health England” (PHE), a government agency, has recently estimated that up to 200 thousand residents of England and Wales are being infected each year with Hepatitis E (HepE), mainly from eating undercooked meat, including pork. HepE is often not serious, but can sometimes cause liver failure in pregnant women and others with weakened immune systems. There are conflicting reports on the seriousness of some 60 cases over the summer, traced to imported pork products sold at a major London supermarket. PHE claimed the risk to the public was small, although newspaper accounts at the time, stated there had, indeed, been serious illnesses. The HepE strain responsible has been on the increase in the area since 2010.
In 2001, a research team in this country concluded, “Hepatitis E is highly prevalent in commercial swine populations in Canada and…may be an important zoonotic agent for humans.” Those findings, however, have since been disputed, or at least played down.
Officials here in Manitoba have, correctly, been informing the public that the PED virus (responsible for the current outbreak here), “is not a human health or food safety concern.”
But research by experts at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech did note that PED is also a coronavirus. That’s a family of pathogens, other members of which are “known to infect humans and other animals and cause respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.” The three PED strains they isolated, likely evolved from bats in China. This, they conclude, “provides further support of the... potential for cross-species transmission.”
The lead author of that study, Dr. X.J. Meng, in an interview with me, hotly denied any suggestion that PED might cross over into humans.
So, while PED is not a “zoonotic,” the same cannot be said for other coronaviruses.
One of them, “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” (MERS), claimed human lives in dozens of countries in and around the Arabian Peninsula after being confirmed in 2012. Humans can get it by drinking unpasteurized camels’ milk.
And another coronavirus, “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), took many lives in an epidemic in 2003, including 44 Canadians. Although the literature does not reveal any connection to hogs, much about the disease remains a mystery. These outbreaks (MERS and SARS), add the American researchers, “create further anxiety over the emergence of PED in the United States.”
Early in 2009, the infamous “Swine flu” (H1N1) was first detected in Mexico. By June of that year, the World Health Organization stopped counting cases and declared the outbreak a “pandemic.” When it was all over, human fatalities probably stood at about 285 thousand, mostly in Africa and southeast Asia. While the WHO still fears the disease may pose some threats in certain regions, it has declared it is now in a “post-pandemic period.”
Despite protests from hog producers and some politicians over the name, “Swine Flu” is not a misnomer. While it cannot be spread by eating pork, the virus contains five genes that normally circulate in pigs and is now considered a human influenza virus. Hogs infected with it were also found in three other countries, including Canada. And, yet another virus “of swine origin” was isolated in three people in Saskatchewan in 2010. All worked at the same large hog operation.
So, are we taking livestock diseases seriously enough?
As the CDC cautions, “The more animals are kept in close quarters, the more likely it is that infection or bacteria can spread among them. Concentrated animal feeding operations or large industrial animal farms can cause a myriad of environmental and public health problems.”
Here in North America, where terrible (so far non-zoonotic) diseases have been raging (including my own home province and yours), for years now, what kind of future will a massively expanded industry hold for all of us?
And who will pay for the huge economic losses which are sure to follow?
Coming soon, “In Hogs We Trust,” Part Four.
RELATED: Part #1 "How the Manitoba government’s return to a deregulated hog industry could actually aggravate a world health crisis."
RELATED: Part #1 "How the Manitoba government’s return to a deregulated hog industry could actually aggravate a world health crisis."
Part #2 "The Price We Pay For Corporate Hog$"
Larry Powell lives in Shoal Lake, where he publishes PlanetInPeril.ca Larry has served briefly as a member of the environmental monitoring group, Hog Watch Manitoba.
POSTSCRIPT: I have gleaned the above information from the most reliable sources I can find - government agencies, world health authorities, scientific research studies published in peer-reviewed journals and, in some cases, industry itself. But please consider this a “sampling,” rather than a complete chronicle. l.p.