The reality of the risks posed by African swine fever and how vets can help

Posted on July 30, 2019 by Christine Middlemiss

African swine fever (ASF) is the disease that’s keeping me awake at night at the moment. It’s a contagious viral disease of pigs and wild boar, which does not affect people but is often fatal to infected pigs and causes massive losses and welfare impact.

It’s currently present in a number of European countries and is spreading rapidly in China and other parts of Asia. If the disease were to infect UK pigs it would mean the mass culling of pigs and livestock movement restrictions similar to the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak. It would also cause severe economic losses to our pig and pork industries. At the moment there is no vaccine and the UK national reference laboratory at The Pirbright Institute advises that there is unlikely to be a vaccine for several years.

How does it travel?

A major concern for ASF reaching the UK is from people travelling to the UK from affected areas of Europe or Asia and bringing pork or pork products back with them in their luggage. Northern Ireland has already found fragments of ASF virus DNA in illegally imported meat. The virus survives incredibly well in pork meat and can survive for months in smoked, dried and cured meats and likely years in frozen meat. The virus can easily spread in infected pork or pork products if they are fed to pigs. Other ways it could reach the UK is through contaminated objects such as vehicles, clothes, footwear and equipment.

It is legal for members of the public to bring pork products back from EU countries, but we are asking people to avoid doing so to be on the safe side and help reduce the risk of introducing the disease. It is however illegal for people to bring back meat and dairy produce from Asia or other third countries. We have just launched a campaign in airports with signage warning of the risks of bringing pork produce back to the UK.

The risk of the ASF virus being introduced to the UK was set at ‘low’ in August 2017, but it was increased to ‘medium’ in September 2018 following a large geographical jump of the disease from Eastern Europe to wild boar in Belgium.

What's the risk?

It might sound unlikely that a UK pig would come into contact with ASF infected meat, but the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak began due to illegal feeding practices on a pig premises. The classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia in 2000 was also suspected of being caused by pork products being discarded in an outdoor pig unit. 

Many commercial pig keepers are members of organisations that regularly share the risks and best practice around ASF with their members, but I’m concerned that smallholders and pet pig owners may not be as well informed. We’ve issued a lot of advice about ASF on the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s Facebook and Twitter channels, but non-commercial keepers may not be aware of or follow these.

This is where I look to you as private veterinarians, even if you are in small animal practice, to help us spread our messages. It’s so important that smallholders who keep pigs or people with a couple of pigs as pets are aware that they also have a very important role to play in protecting the national pig herd from this devastating disease. It might be that such keepers think that African swine fever is only a concern for commercial pig farmers, but that is absolutely not the case.

What you need to know

What I’d really like all pig keepers to know is:

  • It is illegal to feed pigs catering waste from any restaurant or commercial kitchen, including vegetarian and vegan kitchens. 
  • Feeding pigs domestic kitchen waste or food scraps is also illegal.
  • It is illegal to feed pigs any sort of meat or fish, whether raw, partially cooked or fully cooked. 
  • Specially formulated commercial pig feed is the safest and easiest way to give pigs a balanced diet.
  • Pig keepers can feed vegetable material as long as it has never entered a kitchen and has not come into contact with material of animal origin.
  • Keepers and their farm workers should use dedicated clothing and boots when entering pig premises and require that vehicles and equipment entering the premises are cleaned and disinfected first.
  • Pig keepers should ensure that people who look after or visit their pigs understand the disease risk of bringing back wild boar meat or pork/pork products from affected countries.
  • Anyone who keeps pigs, even if they are just kept as pets must tell the Animal and Plant Health Agency so that they can be issued with a herd mark. It’s vital that APHA knows the location of all pigs to aid disease control. If pet pig keepers wish to walk their pigs outside of their home premises, they also need a walking licence. 
  • And of course veterinary advice should be sought promptly if pigs look unwell. 

We have produced a poster for pig keepers which contains the key advice they need. It’s available from the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s Vet Gateway and it’s there for you to hand to your customers to help spread the word. We’ve also worked with The Pirbright Institute to produce slides and a video aimed at vets which detail the main clinical signs.  

A selection of other informative videos about ASF are available on APHA’s YouTube channel and GOV.UK has a page dedicated to ASF with information on how to spot the disease, how to prevent it and a link to the latest situation in other countries in our international and UK disease monitoring reports.

A press notice about our campaign targeted at travellers is available also here.

If you use social media, please help us to get the message out there by following us on Twitter or Facebook and re-tweeting and sharing: @APHAgovuk, @DefraGOVUK and @ChiefVetUK.

Together let’s keep African swine fever out of the UK.

Christine Middlemiss

Written by Christine Middlemiss

UK Chief Veterinary Officer

Christine Middlemiss is the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer. She was appointed in March 2018 having been working as the CVO in New South Wales, Australia since July 2016 where she led major improvements to biosecurity across many farming sectors.