Virus spells trouble for pig farmers

Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) — a viral disease that has a high fatality rate for infected piglets — is rapidly spreading in Japan. Not only pigs but also humans and vehicles can transmit the PED virus. Pig farmers and the central and local governments need to do their utmost to prevent infection of pigs and to halt the spread of the disease.

PED was first confirmed in Europe in the 1970s. The first outbreak in Japan took place in the 1980s and the disease became rampant in the ’90s. There was a small-scale outbreak in 2006 but none since, leading to a decrease in vaccinations. Pigs’ resistance to the disease has lessened and that is helping to fuel the disease’s rapid spread now.

The first cases in the current outbreak were confirmed in Okinawa Prefecture in October, which resulted in 75 deaths among 242 infected pigs. Although the outbreak of the disease waned in February, it gained strength in March, spreading in Kyushu and then Chugoku, Shikoku and eastern Japan.

As of February 2013, some 9,685,000 pigs were being farmed in Japan. According to an April 30 report by the farm ministry, 83,325 pigs have died of the disease in 33 prefectures — more than double the roughly 40,000 deaths recorded in a 1996 outbreak.

The PED virus is orally transmitted through feces. The infection causes diarrhea, dehydration and loss of appetite. It is easy for adult pigs to develop resistance to the virus, but infected sows often suffer from a low milk yield, thus affecting the growth of their piglets.

The law on domestic animal infectious diseases control does not require the destruction of PED-infected pigs and only requires reporting of PED cases to prefectural governments. Still the financial damage to pig farmers is enormous because they have already been hit hard by the sudden rise in the prices of imported feed due to the weak yen. A fall in production caused by the disease could bankrupt some of them.

Some pig farmers are also considering closing their farms not only due to the impact of the PED outbreak but also in anticipation of the influx of cheap pork if the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade scheme goes into force.

The farm ministry should extend financial support to those farmers who need it. It should also consider introducing a price stabilization measure because the PED outbreak is likely to cause a decrease in pork production this summer when demand for grilled pork will increase.

While making utmost efforts to end the outbreak in Japan, the farm ministry also needs to collect information about the situation overseas since PED is rampant in the United States, Canada, China, Taiwan and South Korea. The PED virus can be spread through the transport of pigs and vehicles. To prevent this, the effective use of vaccines and disinfection of vehicles and farm equipment are important.