African pig killer spreading at 300 km/year

Niimoodi muinasaja kombel põletavad lätlased sigade aafrika katku nakatanud sigu. Alternatiiviks on loomade matmine.

PHOTO: Mārcis Ulmanis

Starting this week, Estonian Food and Veterinary Office is limiting exportation of live pigs from Valga region – the plague is encroaching.

It’s no longer «whether?» but rather «when?». According to Food and Veterinary Office director-general Ago Pärtel, a wild swine dead due to African plague will probably be found on Estonian territory sooner or later. As it recently happened in Ērģeme Commune, Latvia. «We are scrambling to keep the plague from reaching domestic swine.»

The place the dead wild swine were found is a couple of dozen kilometres from Estonian border – so close that from times long ago the Ērģeme area is by Estonians called Härgmäe. From the swine, the plague quickly spread to a local farm raising some 60 pigs. To destroy the victims, an ancient method was utilised: two big piles of wood were set up, and the pigs were burnt thereon. In Lithuania, in its turn, a large farm of 20,000 swine was infected last week despite all measures taken. All they could to was kill them all and bury on the spot.

For Latvian Food and Veterinary Office northern region chief Mārcis Ulmanis, these are days extremely busy. «Wonderful to work, in summer-time – the sun is up early and sets late,» the man noted, irony in his voice. «If the plague isn’t stopped, soon Estonia and Latvia will have precious few pigs left.»

Patrolling policemen

Of all pig epidemics, the African plague is the worst, as it kills fast and hardly an animal gets spared. Although humans and other species aren’t infected – the plague is limited to domestic and wild swine – the lives of Latvians are directly impacted just the same. For instance, policemen patrol the paths leading out of Härgmäe Commune quarantine zone around the clock, glancing in the trunks of even the tiniest of cars – lest anybody try to smuggle pork or a live pig out of the area.

Visiting the infected farm is strictly forbidden. To begin with, a couple of dead wild swine were spotted in the neighbourhood, a couple of weeks ago. Thereafter, immediately the farm a couple of kilometres off was infected. «The wild swine were eating oats on the field, and then the farmer decided to feed the trampled corn to domestic ones,» explained Mr Ulmanis.

«In 2007, the plague came from Africa to Georgia; from there, it spread to Russia, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The disease spreads at 300 kilometres a year,» said Mr Ulmanis. Logically, then, Estonia would be next in line.

Mr Ulmanis said Latvia still has quite a bunch of small pig-farmers. In the dozen-kilometre Härgmäe zone, 71 are registered. «To these, add the people who take one or two pigs from neighbours in the spring, unregistered, and slaughter these in the fall.» At the moment, Latvian veterinary inspectors are visiting pig raisers of the region, taking body temperature of the pigs, and test their blood if needed. 

According to Mr Ulmanis, the plague may have reached Latvia via wild swine from Russia. «Problematically, also, people secretly bring infected port from Russia and Belarus, which is cheap there,» he said. «In Russia and Belarus, the plague has spread in several regions. Over there, pig raising is popular in homes. Once an animal gets sick, it goes for pork.»

As admitted by Mr Ulmanis, the Latvian veterinary office hasn’t faced anything of this sort for quite a while; therefore, it is hard to find officials able to slaughter swine. To do that, special pistols are used.

No vaccine

According to Ago Pärtel of the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO), there is no vaccine against the African pig plague, as opposed to the classic plague. An animal gets blood infection and dies quickly. FVO has applied a row of restrictions and starting this week more are added – on top of the EU ones.

As an example of that, FVO is in cooperation with hunters who take samples from dead wild swine. Also, every pig farmer has gotten a hand-out with information. «Especially on the Eastern border, people’s luggage is checked so as keep them to bring in forbidden animal products,» added Mr Pärtel.

«From a restricted area, unprepared pig fodder may not be imported. Vehicles used to transport pigs must, prior to being loaded, stand on Estonian territory for 48 hours. In addition to that, documental evidence is required regarding disinfection washing.» Since the last week but one, in a ten kilometre zone from Estonia’s land frontier, it was forbidden to keep pigs in open air.

At the end of last week, FVO obtained permission from the European Commission to establish a 40 kilometre buffer zone from the Latvian outbreak site – the restrictions entered into force since start of this week and encompasses the entire Valga County, Karksi Commune in Viljandi County, and four communes in Võru County bordering with Valga County. Live pigs may be brought into the zone, but export of pigs from the zone is restricted.

«The pigs must have been born in the same farm or have been there for a minimum of 30 days. Secondly, all pigs exiting the zone need to be laboratory-tested and analysis regarding African pig plague needs to be negative,» explained Mr Pärtel.

In case the virus spreads into Estonia, national and local anti-epidemic committees will be formed. Infected areas will be quarantined, a three kilometre protection zone will be established around the affected farm, to which is added a ten kilometre surveillance zone where all farms undergo inspection.

The calls for mass shooting of wild swine proposed by some people would not be a solution, according to Mr Pärtel. Rather, it could be a negative.

A total campaign to destroy wild swine was proclaimed in Belarus, to fight off the African plague. «As a result, wild swine were scared into motion and thence the first findings in Poland and Latvia,» said Mr Pärtel. «Mindless wholesale hunt will never guarantee a hundred percent result anyhow.» Mr Pärtel said that if the plague enters Estonia, the damages will be compensated to producers based on port buying-in price. Thereat, the prerequisite is farmers fulfilling all measures of biological safety.

According to Estonian Hunters Union vice chief Andres Lillemäe, Latvian colleagues have already let them know that North-Latvia is essentially empty of wild swine. «The men say they see no wild swine at all,» said he. «Probably, the plague has been spreading in the Valka area for a couple of months already.» As also confirmed by Mr Lillemäe, Latvian hunters are rather restricting driven hunt for wild swine so as to avoid driving infected swine into other areas. «Regulating numbers is prudent, but all-out killing surely not.»

Bury or burn

According to Mārcis Ulmanis, Latvia has no animal waste treatment centre and up to now they have had a Lithuanian company dealing with the dead animals. «But as the African plague hit, it is easy for them to refuse the dead animals, as it is forbidden to take dead pigs out of epidemic areas,» said Mr Ulmanis. Thus, the Latvians have been busy burning the dead. Now, The government in Riga gave money to buy a mobile animal waste treatment device. 

A corresponding centre in Estonia, AS Vireen, is capable of treating 40 tonnes a day, but not 1,500 all at once as were, for instance, slaughtered in the Lithuanian farm of 20,000 pigs. According to Vireen chief Rait Persidski, Rakvere meat industry and Atria Eesti also have their centres, but Estonian facilities aren’t really meant for emergencies.

«The idea is to initially localise the epidemic, as it is largely spread via transport,» said Mr Persidski. «If a farm is infected near us, it is logical for the animals to come to us; but all told it is up to the Food and Veterinary Office to decide what to do with such pigs.»

According to Ago Pärtel, it is all up to the case at hand. «The issue is: does it make sense to transport such sick animals all across the land? Better to bury them on the spot and if that’s not good for environmental reasons, because of groundwater etc, then let them be burned.»

Hog farmer horror

Atria Eesti head Olle Horm thinks it rather likely that Estonia will have its share of the plague. Atria Eesti has six pig farms; yearly, the company grows 75,000 pigs for pork. The leading Baltic pig factory is in Viljandi County where Rakvere Farmid raise above a quarter of a million pigs every year. Atria’s largest farm has 7,000 animals; the one closest to Latvia is located in Põlva County. For a very long time now, Estonia and Scandinavia have been free from the more serious pig epidemics.

According to Mr Horm, in the last week but one he’d have predicted a 10–20 percent probability for the plague to reach Estonia. Now, after the plague leaped 200 kilometres from South-East Latvia to North-Latvia, he feels compelled to quote Matti Nykänen and admit it’s fifty-sixty (50:60). «Over the years, it has just kept moving onwards.»

According to Mr Horm, the zone rule is for workers, before entering a farm, to take a sauna or a shower. «Before entering the zone, all clothes are changed to the very underwear,» explained Mr Horm. Due to the plague-hazard, all vehicles entering the territory undergo disinfection. Before entering the farms, vehicle wheels are to do one and a half turns on disinfecting mats.

The state is not compensating costs of avoiding the plague; even so, the state will pay for slaughtered animals should the plague break out in Estonia. «The trouble for us is: Atria’s six farms are actually one entity – in Palamuse, Jõgeva County, piglets are raised to seven kilograms, then in Viljandi County these are raised to 28 kg fatteners, and the other farms in their turn raise these into feeding pigs. Now, cutting a link out of the chain, it’s like a four legged table with one sawed off.»

Mr Horm is scared at the possibility of Estonia imposing restrictions of live pigs transported across the land. «Then, for us the situation would be exceedingly difficult,» he explained. «With a quarantine imposed in Põlva County, for instance, how do we get the pigs to the slaughterhouse in Valga? No way...»

In Estonia, about half a million pigs are raised every year; of these, 100,000 – 140,000 live animals are exported. Should the borders be shut due to African plague, Mr Horm says we might come to a situation where these pigs cannot be exported. Then, Said Mr Horm, covering the cost of killing the pigs would be small help compared to real losses of producers. «That’s like you have a serious car wreck and they compensate the tyres.»

Is there really no other way out, if plague hits, than killing all the pigs? «Without such a procedure, it will be impossible to get the infectious agent out of the farm facilities and from the workers, ever,» admits Mr Horm. «In case of an epidemic, the buildings need to be totally cleaned and emptied out, for a moment; then, they need to be disinfected; thereafter, after waiting for a while, there must be a repeat disinfection. Otherwise it will never end.»