In a major policy shift, agriculture minister Taku Eto announced Friday that the ministry now plans to vaccinate pigs against swine fever.
The ministry judged that doing so is inevitable if Japan is to stop the unabated spread of the infectious disease after the first outbreak in the country in 26 years was confirmed in September last year.
Eto also said the ministry will ask pharmaceutical companies to increase production of swine flu vaccines.
Currently, Japan has a stock of vaccinations against the disease for about 1 million pigs, but the government believes increased output is necessary and that more areas will need vaccinations.
The vaccination program is expected to mainly cover pig farms near areas where outbreaks of the disease have been recorded.
The disease affects only pigs and wild boars, and has a high fatality rate. It does not affect humans even if meat from an infected animal is consumed.
Basic responses to swine fever outbreaks stipulated under the government’s epidemic prevention guidelines for the disease are to cull pigs at affected farms, including uninfected pigs, and at present these guidelines do not allow preventive vaccinations to be administered. The ministry plans to review the guidelines.
But it is believed to be difficult to eradicate the swine fever virus as long as there are wild boars around, which are said to carry the virus and pass it on to domesticated pigs. Therefore, a vaccination program may have to be carried out over a long period of time, and related costs could be high.
Some experts caution that vaccinations would make it difficult to distinguish between infected and uninfected pigs, possibly leading to a delay in responding to new outbreaks.
In addition, starting a vaccination program will mean Japan will lose its status as a swine fever-free country under rules drawn up by the World Organization for Animal Health, and the number of countries restricting imports of pork from Japan will likely increase as a result. The country declared the virus eradicated in 2007.
For these reasons, the government had taken a negative stance toward any vaccination programs.
But the situation changed on Sept. 13, when an outbreak of swine fever was confirmed at a pig farm in Saitama Prefecture, a major pork producing area, following infections mainly in the Chubu region.
This was the first outbreak in the Kanto region since an infection was first confirmed at a pig farm in Gifu Prefecture in September last year. That was the first case of swine fever to be recorded in Japan in 26 years.
Pigs infected with swine fever have been confirmed in six prefectures — Gifu, Aichi, Mie, Fukui, Saitama and Nagano.
In those six prefectures, as well as in Osaka and Shiga prefectures, to which piglets infected with swine fever were shipped, a total of over 135,000 pigs have been culled since September last year.