As a virus wreaks havoc on pigs across the nation — killing millions of animals in the last year — officials with the Colorado State Veterinarian’s Office are traveling the state, working to educate livestock owners on measures that could help prevent a devastating outbreak locally.
Since it was first detected in the United States last spring, porcine epidemic diarrhea has killed 4 million to 5 million pigs and has spread to more than 27 states, according to reports by the Associated Press.
Colorado State Veterinarian Keith Roehr said since last summer, his office has seen a fairly steady stream of positive tests for the virus each week, but that’s not an indicator of mortality rates, and the virus doesn’t appear to be widespread here.
In an effort to prevent a devastating outbreak in Colorado’s farrowing operations, which are the most vulnerable, his office has worked with other organizations to formulate a set of disease prevention recommendations for livestock owners — especially those who travel to shows across the country.
“In time we know that things will get better,” he said. “We just want to make sure we get those (prevention) tools to producers now so that they can use these tools and reduce the impact of the disease.”
Roehr said the disease, which poses no threat to humans but causes severe diarrhea in the animals, kills from 80 percent to 100 percent of piglets infected, which is why it does the most damage in farrowing operations.
He added that researchers are looking into the possibility that the disease came to the U.S. by way of feed.
“We’re never able to prove that, but that’s a working theory that in retrospect seems to make a lot of sense,” Roehr said.
Roehr said there is no threat to the food supply.
However, consumers can expect a price increase — though not a drastic one — in pork products at the meat counter because of the virus’s impact.
The virus appears to fair better in cold weather, of which there’s been no shortage this winter, but Roehr said experts are hopeful that the spread of the disease will die down in the coming warmer months and as more herds become immune to the virus.
“That said, we don’t rely on weather alone,” he said. “The biosecurity prevention tools are by far and away the most effective means of limiting the spread of disease.”
Because the disease is most often spread from animal to animal through contact with infected manure, there is concern that pig owners who travel to fairs and shows around the country could bring back infected pigs or could contaminate their own soil by mixing in infected manure.
Roehr said his office’s recommendations, which he hopes to publish on the state website, focus on disease prevention strategies for transporting and commingling pigs.
Roehr said first, he recommends that state and county fair boards consider terminal shows, meaning that owners who bring pigs to those shows do not return their pigs to their herds.
He also cautions those who have breeding operations to forego circuits in which they would travel from place to place for shows. Breeding shows, he said, may also contribute to the spread of disease, so counties should consider cancelling those or should put in place strict disinfecting practices.
For those who do participate in shows, Roehr said it’s crucial that they avoid sharing trailers and that they routinely clean the spaces where pigs are kept.
He said pig owners should wash their clothing and shoes once they return home to prevent spreading the disease to their own soil and herds.
Since allowing different herds to commingle during weigh-in processes may mix healthy animals with infected ones, Roehr said he recommends that shows find another way to tally each animal’s weight.
“If they unload into a common area, that can augment the spread of disease,” he said.
Roehr said removing all soil from arenas and pen areas after each event could also be effective.
The state veterinarian said it’s crucial to educate owners on good disease prevention practices, so he encourages agencies and organizations to update their health requirements.
Sites like www.pork.org, offer helpful information on biosecurity practices, he said.
Each livestock operation is different, so Roehr said it’s important for farmers to work closely with their veterinarians.
“Everyone’s different,” he said. “Some things are doable, some things probably not as much. The veterinarian’s perspective for each individual is important.”
Roehr said he also hopes to see organizations like 4-H and the Future Farmers of America present their members with information on disease prevention. While the prevention recommendations should be effective at staving off the spread of this virus, he said the practices are universally beneficial, helping to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in all livestock.
“There’s so many other benefits to these common practices outside of PED that can be helpful,” he said. “We need to think about these with other livestock sectors.” ❖