Pig virus has county 4-H fair organizers worried

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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A virus that has killed more than 7 million young pigs around the nation over the past year is causing concern for both fairgoers and those planning on exhibiting livestock at Southern Indiana fairs this summer.

It's also to blame for sending pork prices to record high levels.

The porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PED, was first seen in the U.S. in Iowa in April 2013. PED causes severe diarrhea in pigs and is transmitted through fecal matter. The virus largely affects young pigs and has a near-100 percent mortality rate if the piglets are not weaned from their mothers early, according to John Baker, veterinarian at the Warrick Vet Clinic in Boonville.

The disease does not affect humans or other animals and does not jeopardize food safety, he said.

"The problem with PED is that it seriously affects the babies who are nursing. We have to wean them to save them," Baker told the Evansville Courier & Press (http://bit.ly/1rYFQH2 ). "If they're over 8-10 days of age, and we wean them, we can save them. If they're left on the sows, they die."

Baker said the virus harms the lining of the piglet's intestines and prevents them from digesting milk. When they can't digest milk, they dehydrate quickly and die as a result. He said that the best method for saving piglets is taking them off milk and hydrating them with clear fluids.

Baker described the effects of PED to swine as similar to what the flu is like in humans: Symptoms that are uncomfortable in adults can be life-threatening to newborns that have weak immune systems and can dehydrate quickly.

So far, only an experimental vaccine is available. Baker has been using the vaccine in his clinic, and says that so far it seems to be helping build immunity in the animals.

Pigs can develop natural immunity from exposure to the disease, but after a farm in Southeastern Indiana recently had its second outbreak of PED, researchers had confirmed their suspicions that resistance is short-lived.

With the summer fair season about to begin, 4-H programs across the state have been keeping a watchful eye on the spread of the disease — prompting some counties to take precautions. Dubois County recently canceled all its fair swine shows for the year.

"It's already in the county, and this will not necessarily reduce the spread, but it's going to slow it down because when we have a lot of kids and animals meeting at the same place, there's a risk of it being traced back to different farms," said Kenneth Eck, agriculture and natural resource educator at Purdue Extension of Dubois County.

Vanderburgh County will be removing its usual sow and piglet display as a safeguard. All other swine shows are still scheduled.

"Right now, we're still optimistic. We're going to watch other counties and other fairs to see how their shows go and go from there," said Randy Brown, extension educator for Vanderburgh County.

Baker said that while other animals can't get the virus, the possibility of it being traced back to farms that have young pigs is still high if proper biosecurity measures are not followed.

"The important thing to remember is that if your cow, sheep, or goats — even though they can't get the virus — steps in an area that an infected pig might have been in, they can trace that back to a farm, and if that farm has piglets, then you're in trouble," said Baker.

Jon Neufelder of the Posey County Purdue Extension office said that in previous years, exhibitors would sometimes take their hogs home with them after showing them at their county fair — but because of PED, it's likely that most of their animals will be immediately sent to slaughter after showing.

"Letting the animals go back home after being at the fair and being surrounded by all of these other pigs that could be carrying the virus poses a direct threat to farms who may have piglets," said Neufelder.

Baker said that ways to heighten biosecurity measures — both on farms and at fairs this year — are to isolate animals that show symptoms, disinfect trailers before and after transporting animals, and put animals under quarantine that may have been recently exposed to pigs that could carry the virus if your farm raises young piglets.

Baker suggests fairgoers who have young pigs at home wear different clothes and shoes than they normally wear around their animals.

PED thrives in the winter months, when farmers face the highest number of deaths as a result of the disease. And because pigs are usually processed at five to six months of age, that's why consumers will be facing such high prices at the grocery stores this summer, according to Chris Hurt, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

"The bigger impacts of this disease will definitely be felt over the next four months. That's where we will see a 5 to 7 percent decrease in the number of animals coming to market," said Hurt.

Hurt also said that because of the anticipated shortage, producers are increasing their slaughter weights, which are up by 3 percent this year.

The national average for the price per pound of pork is currently $3.95 a pound, compared to $3.64 last year — which means consumers are paying nearly 8 percent more for pork this year, according to Hurt.

Hurt added that profitability for pigs this year will also raise significantly — which will be an asset to farms who haven't faced PED in their herds — but won't be much help to those who have lost animals to the disease.

Bob Bonenberger, a manager at Farm Boy Food Services in Evansville, says that the price hikes are being felt in the Southern Indiana area and are a direct result of supply and demand. With fewer hogs being processed and the demand still being the same — prices are bound to go up, he said.

"When you lose 7 to 10 million pigs as a result of something like this, of course you're going to see some impact in this industry. Everything is totally up from last year, anyone can see that when they go to the grocery store. Pork is at an all-time high right now, and PED is a direct cause of the increase," said Bonenberger.

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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