Jake didn’t know what he was seeing, but he knew it wasn’t good.

He’d last walked through this finisher barn yesterday afternoon, and everything was fine. Now, this morning, he could tell something was off as soon as he stepped in the door. Most mornings, his pigs sprang to attention when he came in – woofing, rooting, banging on their feeders. But today the silence was eerie. Even on this warm morning, pigs were lying huddled with one another. Those up and moving were slow and uninterested in eating. Jake noticed pigs with purple-colored bellies and ear tips, and wait, is that a dead one over there?

The pit in Jake’s stomach intensified as the scene unfolded. Most pigs in the barn looked tough and several were lying dead. What could be going on? He remembered his dad’s tale of a bad turn of pigs with PRRS back when Jake was young. These pigs fit that description, he thought. But the flow supplying Jake’s barns had been PRRS-stable for years now, and this wasn’t really the season for it, either.

Jake called his vet, and she was out yet that morning. Dr. Johnson was as worried as Jake, figuring that a new strain of PRRS had somehow broken through the preventive health walls the system had built. As she cut through the dead pigs, she saw enlarged lymph nodes in the chest, confirming her PRRS suspicions. But the amount of bleeding into the lymph nodes, kidneys, and skin was unexpected. While she was posting pigs, Jake found five more that had just died.

Now the pit was growing in Dr. Johnson’s stomach. Not wanting to alarm Jake unnecessarily, she told him, “Well, odds are that this is simply a nasty new strain of our old friend PRRS. But I’d feel better about having some other things ruled out, what with some of the weird things going on around the world.” She told Jake to lock down the barn and not visit any other pig barns or farms until more was known.

Before leaving, Dr. Johnson called the state vet’s office. She felt a pang of nervousness when they told her they’d get someone out immediately to perform a foreign animal disease investigation. But she knew she did the right thing by making that call.

African swine fever is not going to come into the US announcing itself: it’s going to look like something more routine. One of the reasons for China’s industry-breaking ASF outbreak right now is that the infection apparently went unidentified for months before anything was done to stop it.

This isn’t a disease swine producers can live with. The more virulent versions of ASF kill pigs outright. The less virulent versions cause persistent infections and chronic illness. There is no vaccine. The virus lives for a long time in the pig’s surroundings. Routine disinfectants don’t kill it. Mass depopulation of infected pigs and those in contact with them is the only way to deal with it.

As we’ve learned with PED virus, it’s possible an overseas virus can survive in feed ingredients and their containers long enough to make it into a pig’s diet in the middle of America. With the outbreaks occurring all over China, there’s now more ASF virus than ever rolling around a country from which we bring in a lot of goods.

Doom and gloom, no doubt. But our food and livestock systems in the US are poised to deal with foreign animal disease threats better than other countries. We have the most highly-trained food animal veterinarians in the world, who are closely tied to their producers. We have the highest-quality veterinary diagnostic labs in the world, including the one at SDSU – ready, by the way, to test samples for ASF if the need ever arises.

And just as importantly, we have smart pork producers, always the first to notice a new disease challenge. The ASF outbreaks in China are good reminders of the need for biosecurity, even with the feed they bring into their barns. Producers should quiz their feed suppliers about whether they bring in feed ingredients from other countries, and what they do to ensure their safety. And most importantly, they should stay vigilant for that “something that doesn’t look right” and engage their vets right away when that happens.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.

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