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Japan on Thursday officially lost its status as a country free from classical swine fever as recognized by an intergovernmental organization, as it has failed to contain an outbreak that started two years ago.

The World Organization for Animal Health, also known as OIE, gave Japan a two-year suspension status on Sept. 3, 2018, after the country reported the first outbreak in 26 years at a pig farm in Gifu Prefecture.

In order to regain the disease-free status, Japan will have to ensure that there are no reported cases for 12 months and that no vaccinations for the disease are carried out during the same period.

The agriculture ministry initially tried to contain the disease by culling pigs. But the disease spread to other areas, mainly in central and eastern Japan, carried by wild boars.

Since the outbreak, the disease has been confirmed at pig farms in 10 prefectures, including Aichi, Saitama and Nagano. A total of 166,000 pigs have been slaughtered.

The ministry changed its policy in September last year and started vaccinating animals.

Swine fever only affects pigs and wild boars but has a high fatality rate. Human health is not affected even if meat from an infected animal is consumed, but the internationally recognized status is at times required for exporting pork to new markets.

Japan exported about 2,000 tons of pork annually in recent years.

Agriculture minister Taku Eto (center) speaks at a meeting of animal infectious diseases at the ministry on Tuesday.  | KYODO
Agriculture minister Taku Eto (center) speaks at a meeting of animal infectious diseases at the ministry on Tuesday. | KYODO

Hong Kong and Singapore, existing importers of Japanese pork, say they will continue importing, but only from areas without vaccinations.

Japan will not be able to start exports to the United States, the European Union or other swine fever-free countries that have not imported Japanese pork.

Meanwhile, Taiwan and other economies without the status may urge Japan to lift its ban on pork imports from them.

Thanks to vaccinations and thorough hygiene control measures by farmers, Japan has not confirmed a swine fever infection at any pig farm since a case reported in Okinawa prefecture in March this year.

But infected wild boars are still being found. So far, 17 prefectures have seen such infections.

Vaccinations of pigs are recommended in 25 prefectures including Fukushima Prefecture, which was newly added to the list last month.

“The risk that pigs get infected will not disappear as long as there are infected boars,” a senior agriculture ministry official said. The ministry is continuing its efforts to catch wild boars and distributing vaccine feed for them.

Previously, swine fever spread in Japan from the 1920s until a final case was confirmed in Kumamoto Prefecture in 1992.

Although infections of boars were not confirmed back then, it took Japan 11 years to gain the swine fever-free status in 2007 after its shift away from vaccinations in 1996.

“We’ll remain highly conscious of our aim for the disease-free status,” agriculture minister Taku Eto said at a meeting of animal infectious diseases on Tuesday.

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