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New Delhi: The central government has advised authorities in Assam to go for culling of pigs affected by the African Swine Fever (ASF) after thousands were found to have died from the illness in the past several weeks.

The Assam government had earlier confirmed that it is ASF and not the classical swine fever that has killed over 2,500 domestic pigs across 306 villages of the state. But local farmers have said that more than 30,000 pigs were killed in just two weeks.

Atul Bora, the state animal husbandry and veterinary minister, said, “We have been asked to divide the area into zones and go for culling accordingly. The situation is quite serious since there are many pig farmers now with more than 20 lakh pigs.”

Carcasses of 28 pigs were recently found floating from a stretch in the Brahmaputra river flowing through the Kaziranga National Park, raising concerns about contamination of river water.

P. Sivakumar, the Park’s director, said, “Our Biswanath Division removed 28 bodies from the river and had them disposed to prevent the disease from spreading. But a major worry is the contamination of the river water which the animals and people in these parts use for drinking.”

With over 21 lakh pigs in the state, Assam heads the Rs 8,000 crore pork market in the Northeast and the illness could prove disastrous for the state’s meat industry.

ThePrint takes a look at how ASF affects pigs and suggestions that China could be responsible for the 26 carcasses floating in Brahmaputra.

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Also read: Why bats are huge reservoirs of viruses and how humans remain at high risk of infection

What is African Swine Fever

The ASF is a contagious hemorrhagic viral disease affecting domestic and wild pigs. The illness is found in regions of Asia, Europe and Africa, and first detected in Kenya in 1909.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, ASF is caused by a large DNA virus of the Asfarviridae family. The disease can be transmitted to healthy pigs through direct contact with infected domestic or wild swines, indirect contact through ingestion of contaminated substances or through contaminated “fomites, or biological vectors” where present.

ASF is extremely resistant to putrefaction and sunlight, and can sustain in refrigerated meat and carcasses for over six months and for even longer when frozen.

Symptoms of the illness include weight loss, intermittent fever, respiratory signs, chronic skin ulcers and arthritis. Acute forms of ASF is characterised by high fever, anorexia, loss of appetite and haemorrhages in the skin. Chronic forms are caused by low virulent viruses. The disease’s mortality rates are low, ranging from 30 to 70 per cent.

ASF does not infect humans.

Outbreak in China

Before the novel coronavirus gripped China last year, the country was dealing with an outbreak of ASF. A quarter of the world’s pig population is said to have died from ASF between 2018 and 2019, from the outbreak that spread across China.

In 2018, China’s Shenyang witnessed a deadly outbreak of the virus. After which, it spread to the Philippines, Vietnam, East Timor and South Korea.

According to the Chinese government’s figures, the country lost over 100 million pigs to the virus since last year, which accounted for over 60 per cent of its swine population.

On 2 April, fresh cases of ASF were reported in the northwestern Gansu province of China. A few days prior to that, another outbreak was reported when pigs illegally transported to the Inner Mongolia region tested positive for the virus.

Critics have compared China’s handling of ASF with the Covid-19 outbreak, blaming it of hiding the severity of the illness. A Reuters report says: “Cover-ups across China — coupled with under financing of relief for devastated pig farmers and weak enforcement of restrictions on pork transport and slaughter — have enabled the spread of the livestock virus to the point where it now threatens pig farmers worldwide, according to veterinarians, industry analysts and hog producers.”

The report further says that China’s 440-million pig population has been reduced by more than half. It has caused global meat prices to increase and pushed food inflation to an eight-year hike.

Also read: China’s wet markets are no different from European farmers’ markets

Concerns in India

Officials in India have raised suspicion that the 28 pig carcasses found in the Brahmaputra river may have “floated down from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and further up to China”.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has, however, denied reports claiming that pig carcasses were flowing down water bodies originating in China. Rajeev Taluk, deputy commissioner of Siang district, said, “No one has seen anything yet.”

The Assam government has also issued an advisory asking officials of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests to be on guard. It states that wild pig populations must be stopped from leaving their natural habitats to prevent any contact with the infected pigs.

Also read: Australia wants G-20 scrutiny of wildlife wet markets as they’re a risk to human health


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