African swine fever spreads to one of China's largest pig farming region

The Chinese pig meat industry is struggling to stop the spread of African swine fever, which has now reached the southwest of the country – one of the most important areas for the production of pigs.

Ten of 16 pigs infected with the virus have died on a farm in Yibin, Sichuan Province, the Ministry of Agriculture said on Friday. In the central province of Hubei, 13 pigs died of the disease on Thursday after reports of an outbreak there last month.

African swine fever is now spread across most pig regions in China and Sichuan is one of the largest.

The first reported case was confirmed in the province of Liaoning in August, followed by cases in the northeast in Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia and Hebei. Liaoning remains the worst hit province in the country.

Since then, outbreaks have been detected in the southern region where pork reigns, also in Fujian. To date, 18 of the 31 provinces and regions in China have been affected by the disease and more than 100,000 pigs have been cleared to prevent the virus from spreading.

In Guangdong, Xu Jianxian, who has 20,000 pigs on his farm in Zhaoqing, said he is doing everything to prevent an outbreak.

"I have never heard of an infection in Guangdong Province – I have taken very good preventive measures," Xu said. "I try to prevent outsiders from going to my pig farm, I vaccinate all my pigs and I disinfect the farm twice a week."

The virus is transmitted by ticks and direct contact between animals, as well as contaminated food, animal feed and people traveling between places. But there is no vaccine or cure available for African swine fever and the mortality rate can go up to 100 percent. It is not yet known to infect people.

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The outbreak in China could have spread from Russia according to a China Newsweek report. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that the virus strain in Chinese pigs was similar to that in Russia, Georgia and Estonia. An outbreak in Irkutsk in Siberia, 1,000 km from the Chinese border, in March last year was the first time the disease spread in eastern Russia.

China has reversed an embargo on Russian meat products in July 2016 and the Russian meat industry is expected to get US $ 1 billion from exports to China by 2020. The pork started exporting to China in August, but pork products have since been smuggled in border inspections since 2016, according to China Newsweek.

Meanwhile, Russia has said that the African swine flu outbreak in China is likely to have spread through the import of pork from the European Union, reported Reuters.

The FAO warned in March that the infection could spread further in Southeast Asia and that neighboring country Taiwan is already taking precautionary measures. On Thursday, Taiwan raised fines for tourists illegally bringing foreign-based meat products from NT $ 15,000 (US $ 490) to NT $ 300,000, according to The Liberty Times. It also creaks to online stores that sell products made with Chinese pork.

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In Hong Kong, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee on Sunday, authorities said they had been in close contact with their mainland counterparts to check the outbreaks. "We are all very worried," said Chan, adding that the cleaning and disinfection of slaughterhouses, farms and other high-risk locations would be stepped up.

A spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation of the city said that the import of breeding pigs from the mainland was suspended when the virus was discovered and it had reminded local pig farmers to strengthen the biosecurity measures.

Additional reporting by Naomi Ng

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