Do an internet search on “African swine flu” and you’ll find that the articles, and a few news videos, are almost all from the Philippines, including the Inquirer.
Yet there is no disease called African swine flu, so what seems to have happened is that some journalist made the mistake of using “flu” for “fever” and, like a real virus, the mutated term spread rapidly and with potentially disastrous results, because people are now confusing African swine fever with swine influenza.
The swine influenza virus is similar to the one that causes human influenza and can be passed on to humans. But in 2009, while there was a pandemic (global epidemic) of swine influenza, the humans that were infected only had mild infections.
What we are dealing with now is African swine fever, which I will be referring to as ASFever to hammer in the right word. Let’s get it straight, too: ASFever cannot cause illness in humans.
A fellow veterinarian, Dr. Roselle F. Cudal, called my attention to this seemingly innocent confusion of terms, hoping I could do a column to clear up the confusion. To underscore the growing panic, Dr. Cudal sent me a photo of a memo issued by a chef supplying school meals, banning pork from her menu (the chef has since rescinded the memo after learning the facts about ASFever).
I checked the website of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE, the initials coming from the French name) to get more information.
ASFever is a severe viral disease affecting domestic and wild pigs, and causing signs and symptoms very similar to what we have for dengue in humans: high fever and chills, difficult breathing and occasional coughing, small hemorrhages (bleeding) on the ears and abdomen (visible only in white-skinned pigs), bluish-purple extremities. The death rate for the disease is high.
There is no cure, or vaccine, available for ASFever. (The vaccine that does exist is for hog cholera, a completely different disease.)
The OIE is clear about how the disease is transmitted: among live pigs, wild (baboy damo) and domestic.
The virus survives in the most adverse of conditions, so it can also be spread, according to the OIE, through “shoes, clothes, vehicles, knives, equipment, etc.”
That “etc” includes “swill,” which translates to kaning baboy, or food leftovers from humans that, if they contain pork contaminated by ASF, can then cause the disease in pigs that eat those scraps. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends banning the use of swills, but recognizes that in many poorer countries (the Philippines, included), swills are important for backyard hog raisers. FAO says boiling the swill before feeding the pigs could help prevent ASF spread. FAO also warns about ASFever being spread through wild pigs and “scavenging” pigs, those allowed to roam freely and feeding on garbage.
Humans eating ASFever-infected pork will not become sick. In fact, if you look at all the ways through which the ASFever virus is transmitted, you realize this is really a disease spread by humans to pigs, not because we are infected by the virus but because we carry the virus on our clothes and shoes and spread it through the kaning baboy.
The first ASFever outbreak was reported in 1907, slowly spreading from Africa to Europe and the Americas, and finally reaching Asia only recently, with the first outbreaks reported in China in August 2018. Within a year, outbreaks have been reported in Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and, just last month, the Philippines.
Not a single human infection has been reported for ASFever.
But governments are in a frenzy because ASFever translates into huge economic losses for the swine industry. In the Philippines, according to the Department of Agriculture, we’re talking about a P260-billion industry.
Governments have ordered the mass culling or slaughter of pigs in infected farms and adjoining areas. In the Philippines, some 7,000 pigs have already been culled.
Biosecurity measures are also now in force in airports of several Asian countries. I was just in Taiwan a few weeks ago, and the airports all had warning signs about bringing in pork products, complete with cute dogs sniffing luggage and bags for the banned products.
Not so cute is the fine imposed: NT$200,000 (about P350,000).
If you’re headed for countries with strict regulations—and the Philippines should be following suit soon—do be careful. Declare any pork products you might have and surrender them.
Think hard about what pork products you might have. Taiwan has reported fining travelers from mainland China trying to bring in mooncakes—that had pork in them.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival (that’s on Friday).
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