McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

May 16, 2014

Pig farmers hope to contain deadly virus

State ranchers celebrating the arrival of 8 million piglets this spring are wary of their fate, as the pork industry faces the threat of a virus that is deadly for the youngest in their herds.

The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus has destroyed about 5 percent of Oklahoma’s pig population within the past year, pushed up pork prices by nearly $70, and raised concerns that this year’s largest agricultural gatherings could facilitate its spread if people aren’t careful.

The virus, which passes among pigs following contact with feces, does not pose a threat to humans, food safety or other animals. But it has a nearly 100 percent mortality for piglets that contract it. And there is no vaccine.

The National Pork Producers Council estimates the PED virus has killed 7 million pigs in 30 states since it was first detected in the United States last spring.

In Oklahoma, pork producers have contained the virus to the northwest corner of the state and the Panhandle region. "And we hope it stays that way," said Roy Lee Lindsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council.

In just that region, the virus has killed about 430,000 piglets and infected as many as 185,000 sows on the commercial side of the industry in the past year. The loss of those piglets cost Oklahoma’s pork industry nearly $100 million, Lindsey said.

“The impact has been tremendous,” he said. “There is also tremendous emotional impact for the people on the farms when you’ve got hundreds, sometimes even thousands, dying at a time.”

Though no cases have been reported in his district, state Sen. Ron Justice, R-Chickasha, vice chair of the Senate’s Agricultural and Rural Development Committee, said those in the industry are “very conscious” of the virus and taking precautionary measures.

“What they’re trying to do is keep it confined so it doesn’t spread,” said Justice, adding that anytime so many animals die it creates a huge economic impact on the state.

“It’s devastating to the industry,” he said.

So far, only one show-pig operation has tested positive for the PED virus, said Lindsey.

At this point, the virus isn’t expected to affect the youth animal shows at the state’s largest fairs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa — both start in September — or the county fairs. But officials are closely watching the situation, said Rusty Gosz, youth livestock specialist in Oklahoma State University’s animal science department.

“We’re still learning a lot about it,” he said. “It’s one of those viruses we don’t have a vaccination for. Our biggest avenue to really anything proactive about it is to really stress our bio-security measures.”

Agriculture officials are reminding participants in youth fairs and their families about the importance of quarantining animals when they return to the farm; changing clothes and shoes when they return home from shows; washing hands; and decontaminating trailers or “anything that could be contaminated with or co-mingled with manure.”

Gosz said officials are encouraging youth to monitor the health of their animals before heading to county and state fairs. Many pigs that contract the virus also acquire a fever.

“Just like you wouldn’t take your sick kid to school, hopefully, we would treat our hogs the same,” he said.

While a massive problem for the pork industry, Gosz said the virus hasn’t had the same affect on the pig show industry. The consequences, for one thing, aren’t as large.

In addition, Gosz said the timing of fairs is lucky. Most fall so late that most piglets will be grown, he said, hopefully minimizing any impact.

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