Scientist says Estonia «lulled by pig fever staying in woods only»

Till yesterday morning, Tartu County farms remained untouched by African fever. But once it hit, a large farm was the target with 1,200 swine to be killed. Life Sciences professor claims the development was foreseen. 

The African swine fever cases, thus far limited to the hundreds, have reached the four digit figures. At that, half a kilometre from the infected Heko Põld Plc in Rämsi Village, Puhja Parish, there lies the 4,000 to 4,500 hogs strong Tiku pig farm.  

The development is no surprise, though, as wild swine dead in the area have confirmed the plague was around. And the recently infected Viljandi County is next door neighbour.

Heko Põld head Heino Kõrgeperv told Postimees the killing of the pigs is emotionally difficult for his mostly female staff. As to the future of workers, it was too early to tell. Pursuant to rules he will need to repeatedly disinfect the shed and have it stand empty for a couple of months. «I’ll begin by fulfilling these veterinary board requirements that have to do with today and tomorrow,» he said.

Whether or not he’d keep going as pig farmer, Mr Kõrgeperv was not too sure: «Honestly, can’t tell right now. I’ll try to do my duties today and think about the future once that’s done.»

Fear not pig hair

For the tiny village of Rämsi, these two farms were vital employers for 21 and seven people. «I know not what the ladies will do now,» said a local dweller. Tiko «is a decent farm, also growing sows and piglets. The farm was clean, clean sawdust was used to put under the pigs. If they close it down, work is gone from the village.» Yesterday, the surroundings of Heko Farm left a tidy impression as well.

However, as explained by University of Life Sciences veterinary epidemiology professor Arvo Viltrop, the tidy surroundings are not enough to keep plague away.

«We foresaw that the fever could reach such farms as well – I would not call them large production for Estonian conditions,» he said. «This was rather to be expected. The rules for biological safety were indeed no kept there – for instance, the territory of the farm was totally open. With the territory open and bordering with the forest, it’s a small miracle nothing happened up to now. Well we were lulled a bit by the miracle here.»

As for Heko Põld pig farm area, it is unfenced. Around it, small woods grow here and there.

As assured by Prof Viltrop, it is not all that easy for the African fever to get inside a farm – a wild swine hair carried in by the wind will not do the trick. «The plague can’t get in through the wall, it does come with waste – it has to be footwear contaminated with wild swine droppings, then it can happen,» said the professor. «These things don’t just happen, it must be quite a serious infringement actually.»

Prof Viltrop said it was still possible to keep the fever from spreading into farms. «That would require keeping the biological safety rules. But is these are not kept, the risk is great,» he added, underlying that measures such as fencing the farms and not keeping hogs in the open are doable: «We cannot stop living, you know. But it is basic to change footwear and clothes.»

The professor said the isle of Sardinia, Italy has the African swine fever ever since the 1950ies and it is yet to disappear from nature. Therefore, it is very hard to predict when Estonian territory would be plague free.

Police perhaps needed

As Tartu County veterinary centre head Anneli Kask and chief specialist Toomas Kalja arrived at Rämsi Village, yesterday noon with warning signs and other equipment, the media was waiting. Mr Kalja grabbed a large hammer and struck the initial hazard-zone placards into the ground. Thereafter, both disinfected their hands, and donned white plastic protective clothing and boots. Grabbing apparatuses to spray stuff and boxes to collect samples, they marched off towards pig farm.

Ms Kask said they would have to evaluate the animals first – before killed with CO2 and burned. Also, they would take epidemiological tests to try and find out how and when the fever came into the farm.

Also, Ms Kask said they had taken samples at nearby Tiku Farm and the tests had thus far thankfully proven negative. «We’ll do additional tests,» she promised.

As African fever arrived in Latvia last year, the most endangered zones were guarded by police. Ms Kask said Estonia might use the police or Defence League, if needed. «We have the right, but we will decide as we go,» the media were told.