Travelers to Japan, or residents returning to Japan from trips abroad, are warned that they should not bring overseas food products into the country. Those warnings usually fall on deaf ears: How dangerous can sausage or fruit be?

Very, as is now evident from the appearance of the African swine flu (ASF) virus in Japan. Scientists have traced the living ASF virus to undercooked pork sausage products brought into the country from China. This is the first time that ASF virus has been found in a contagious state in Japan, though no ASF outbreak has been confirmed. The Japanese government must step up measures to prevent illegal meat products from entering the country. That effort will only succeed if Japanese citizens take the warnings seriously. Tokyo must also work with Asian governments to fight outbreaks throughout the region.

Found throughout Africa, ASF was first discovered in the nation of Georgia in 2007 and then spread to Russia. It is thought that ASF entered China through imported pork products. It was first reported in northeast China in August 2018. As is often the case with a disease that is highly contagious, it quickly spread throughout the country and, ignoring borders, has now been found in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Hong Kong and possibly North Korea. Experts believe an outbreak in Myanmar is only a matter of time.

Over 1 million pigs have died or been culled in China as a result of the disease — and the toll could reach 200 million. Nearly 10 percent of the national herd — 2.8 million pigs — have suffered the same fate in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government acknowledged that since first appearing in February, ASF has been found in farms in 60 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces. One epidemiologist calls this “probably the most serious animal health disease (the world has) had for a long time, if not ever.”

ASF is a hardy virus. It spreads through direct contact or contaminated feed and water. It can be carried on clothes (including shoes) or machinery, and can survive in fresh or processed pork products. It has little effect on humans, but it is highly contagious among swine, both domestic pigs and wild boars. Animals with the virus experience fever, bleeding and usually die. While there are vaccines under study, there is no treatment for the disease. Prevention is the only option.

That is difficult for many Asian countries. Usually feed techniques promote the spread of the disease. Less developed nations do not have the technical abilities to check its spread. When the disease proves fatal or culls are required, dead pigs are often not properly buried: lack of money, land and properly trained personnel are the usual complaints. If those countries cannot stop outbreaks, then a disease reservoir remains and it can spread back to countries that might have contained it, like China with its large population of pigs.

The ASF outbreak could impact food security in Asia. Pork makes up about 10 percent of Vietnam’s agricultural sector, and accounts for three-quarters of national meat consumption. Government scientists fear that Cambodia could lose its entire hog population within weeks of an uncontrolled outbreak. In Myanmar, 90 percent of domestic pork production relies on smallholders, which makes containing the disease more difficult.

To be clear: ASF is not the same as swine flu, more correctly known as hog cholera, that has been reported in Japan since September. Neither form of the flu can be transmitted to humans, but both are devastating to pigs. Nevertheless, the appearance of the contagious ASF virus is alarming. Epidemiologists traced the virus to passengers, arriving separately, who had brought sausages and dumplings as souvenirs from China. Under current law, those who bring unauthorized animal products into Japan face fines of up to ¥1 million or imprisonment for up to three years. In the past, such incidents were treated lightly — only people who were engaged in systemic, large-scale violations of the law were punished. Individual tourists were relaxed about the consequences of breaking the law or of getting caught. The ability of this virus to spread demands a tougher approach, however.

The government should launch a full-throated PR campaign — and soon, given the increasing number of tourists visiting Japan and those coming for sporting events like the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. It may be unfortunate and smack of poor hospitality, but a couple of offenders may have to be punished severely for the message to get through.

Japan should also help regional governments combat this problem. The current vogue is aid for infrastructure investments or national security. Priorities may have to shift to address more immediate concerns. Japan must engage regional partners and help them secure their food supplies. In this case, helping them will help ourselves as well.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.