Farmers fight rapidly spreading virus that could kill a million piglets

Baby pigs are dying by the tens of thousands this summer because of a virus new to North America that has no cure, and some experts think that number will exceed 1 million.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus is similar to stomach flu in humans, causing severe diarrhea and vomiting. But the death rate for baby pigs younger than 7 days old is 100 percent, and for a piglet up to 3 weeks old, the morbidity rate is 90 percent or greater. It drops off the older the pig is.

“The virus causes horrible disease and death loss in these nursing babies,” said Steven Henry, an Abilene, Kan., veterinarian and an expert in swine health. “It is a very dramatic and terrible disease for the producers and the animals, and at this point, there is no prevention, no treatment.”

When baby pigs are infected, the virus damages the lining of their intestines so they cannot retain fluid. They die of acute dehydration, Henry said.

The virus has no effect on the meat of older infected pigs because it is an intestinal disease and is not transmitted to humans, government officials said.

“It is strictly a disease of pigs,” said Lisa Becton, a veterinarian and director of swine health research at the National Pork Board.

Mexico last week restricted imports of live hog from the U.S. because of the virus.

The virus was first found in infected pigs in Colorado and Ohio in April and has since spread rapidly to 13 states, including Missouri and more recently Kansas, experts said.

The other states are Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Scientists are confirming data that may show the virus has entered two more states, officials said last week.

Farmers are working to try to contain the virus, which is spread by pigs eating contaminated fecal matter, veterinarians and government officials said.

“Producers are very nervous about the potential spread of the virus not only in Kansas but as it spreads across the U.S.,” said Joel DeRouchey, a swine extension specialist at Kansas State University. “It is quite devastating, both financially and emotionally.”

Bill Brown, Kansas’ animal health commissioner, and others said it is possible that the disease is being spread in the U.S. by transporting pigs. During production, after a piglet is weaned, it is moved to different farms several times before it is slaughtered. The contaminated feces can come from a pig before it is known to be infected.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, but they think it could be a strain found in China.

A type of the flu was first identified in Europe in 1970. In 2010, a strain of that virus was identified in China, and by 2012, it began spreading quickly and killed more than a million piglets, Becton said.

The strain of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus that has now turned up in the U.S. is 99.4 percent similar to the virus that was identified in China last year, Becton said.

Researchers do not know how the virus got to this country in April on farms almost 1,300 miles apart and almost at the same time. The American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the National Pork Producers Council are trying to track the disease using information from a survey sent to farmers.

“It appeared simultaneously in some very strange locations, at least in a pig world point of view,” Henry said.

About 200 herds have been infected, with the most in Iowa, Oklahoma and Colorado. It is believed that the virus spread to southwest Kansas herds from Oklahoma and Colorado.

Missouri agriculture officials and the state veterinarian would not comment on the virus and its impact on that state.

Kansas ranks 10th in the nation in hog production with 1.8 million hogs, and Missouri is No. 7 with about 3 million hogs. In one quarter from December through February, 784,000 pigs were born in Kansas, according to state records.

A single barn on many hog farms, called confined animal feeding operations, may hold a thousand sows. Iowa, which raises 30 million hogs each year, has the most sites identified: 102. Oklahoma is second with 38.

It is difficult to know how many piglets are dying because governments are not tracking that, officials said. That is because the disease is not regulated, nor is it required to be reported. But rough estimates put the number of piglet deaths in Oklahoma at 250,000 to 300,000, said Henry and Rod Hall, Oklahoma’s state veterinarian.

Henry said the numbers of deaths are probably similar in Indiana and Iowa.

Hall said it is too early to tell, but the financial impact could be devastating for smaller farms that may lose all their newborns. Pork prices may also be affected, he said.

“This is a really bad situation,” he said.