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N.C. farmers on guard against new piglet disease

By Daniel Blustein
dblustein@newsobserver.com

A virus deadly to piglets has arrived in North Carolina, and the state’s hog farmers are trying to prevent it from spreading.

Young pigs stricken with porcine epidemic diarrhea virus develop dysentery-like symptoms that frequently result in death. There have been just four confirmed cases in the state as of Thursday, but the outbreak “has the potential for being widespread,” said Dr. Tom Ray, director of Livestock Health Programs for North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The virus poses no health risk to humans through contact or consumption, Ray said, but increased pig losses could lead to higher costs for consumers. And the impact on farmers could be significant.

Henry Moore, 43, worries about PED at his farm in Delway in Sampson County, which raises piglets. His 5,200 birthing sows represent a small operation for the state, which is the nation’s second-leading producer of swine.

If the disease struck Moore’s farm, most of his piglets would die. “That’s the hard part to stomach,” he said.

He expects he would lose up to 10 weeks of production, which amounts to about 22,000 pigs total and nearly $900,000 in revenue.

The disease is common in Europe and Asia, but it’s new to the United States, first reported in Iowa in May. It’s uncertain how the disease arrived here.

North Carolina has 9.2 million pigs. The state’s nearly 2,500 hog farms recorded more than $3 billion in sales during 2007, the year of the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. Nationwide, 331 farms have reported positive PED virus samples across at least 15 states.

“It’s just scary when there’s something new, and the veterinarians and the researchers are trying to figure out what do we do to keep it from spreading,” said Eileen Coite, director of the Sampson County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, an agricultural outreach center.

No one yet knows how bad PED will be in the United States. The immune systems of the national herd of pigs have not yet encountered the virus, so an outbreak could initially spread quickly, Ray said.

But death rates should drop with continued exposure, he said. And since the disease isn’t widespread yet, Ray seems optimistic that the impact may be limited.

“We’ve had diseases like this in the past, and we deal with them,” he said.

Veterinarians and farmers have several tools to help stave off the disease.

Just as parents intentionally expose children to chicken pox to lessen the disease’s severity, farmers can do the same with their pigs. This is a form of autogenous vaccination that allows sows to develop antibodies that will be passed to their nursing piglets. Hog veterinarians can also extract serum from infected pigs that, when injected into healthy animals, will pass along some immunological defense to the herd.

And efforts normally in place to prevent disease from reaching pig herds are being reinforced in the face of the recent PED virus reports.

“The industry has self-imposed a very strict biosecurity for their own protection,” said Dr. Morgan Morrow, a veterinarian and professor in N.C. State University’s Department of Animal Science.

Employees at Moore’s facility must shower and change into farm clothes before working on the grounds.

“We don’t let anything on our farm that’s not disinfected,” Moore said. Just a crumb of manure on a box containing supplies or on an employee’s eyeglasses could start an outbreak, he said.

One concern of both Moore and Morrow was the potential for disease spreading via the transport of manure and dead pigs to composting or processing facilities.

“North Carolina has to quit hauling dead animals up the road to a rendering plant,” said Moore, who composts his dead pigs at his farm.

But while Moore was clearly worried about the disease’s potential, he remained hopeful that he would avoid an outbreak. “I’m optimistic – because as a livestock producer, if you’re not optimistic, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.

That and his strict biosecurity efforts, which have a track record of success, helps, he said. His farm has never had an outbreak of a similar, but more frequently observed, virus called transmissible gastroenteritis.

Blustein: 919-829-4627
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