ROME – On May 26 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) asked affected countries to increase precautionary measures and for a concerted international effort to prevent the African Swine Fever (ASF) infection spreading more widely across the Northern Hemisphere. FAO also warned of a likely imminent upsurge of the disease in the Caucasus region and Russian Federation.

“African Swine Fever is fast becoming a global issue,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO’s chief veterinary officer. “It now poses an immediate threat to Europe and beyond. Countries need to be on the alert and to strengthen their preparedness and contingency plans.”

FAO recommends countries include risk analyses to evaluate the situation and assess potential consequences. Such analyses should pave the way for fully-fledged contingency plans and provide the rationale for selecting disease-control strategies.

There is currently no vaccine for the disease, which is very often lethal to pigs but is not harmful to humans.

Preventive strategies include quarantine, on-farm security and other measures aimed at minimizing the risk of ASF being introduced and becoming established. Early-warning contingency plans include epidemiological information-gathering, training and awareness campaigns.

Late in 2006, ASF was introduced into Georgia from southern Africa, entering through the Black Sea port of Poti where garbage from a ship was taken to a dump where pigs came to feed. Currently, ASF is spreading northwards at the rate of roughly 350 km (217 miles) per year.

Outbreaks are distinctly seasonal, with the highest number of cases registered in the summer and autumn. But as the ASF wave travels northwards, a separate phenomenon – long-distance “jumps" – is also occurring.

In the spring of 2011, ASF suddenly appeared in the port of Murmansk, more than 3000 km (1,864 miles) from southern Russia, and close to the border with Finland. In 2009 it leaped 2000 km (1,243 miles) to St. Petersburg where, however, it appears to have been contained after a relapse at the end of 2010 and again in March 2011.

ASF long-distance jumps are food-borne, with virus surviving in pig meat products taken by travelers. At the destination, food scraps may be fed to pigs, setting off a new outbreak. The frequency of such jumps is increasing as the originally-infected territory enlarges. The ASF virus strain now spreading is a very aggressive one.

ASF is now considered as being established in Georgia, Armenia and the southern part of the Russian Federation. And the number of long-distance outbreaks has increased this year. Russia plans to set up a buffer zone next to the infected region, which may involve suspension of pig production in certain areas and measures directed at wild boar populations.

Progress will still be difficult as farmers often appear not to be reporting ASF outbreaks for fear of seeing their pigs culled without adequate compensation.