The pig industry’s Ebola moment

I visited Uganda earlier this year and that part of West Africa was (and is) free of the Ebola virus. The population there has been lucky so far. Similarly, in Western Europe we are watching the outbreak and its toll of death and human tragedy and, I am sure, also feeling very lucky that we are not directly affected. But, for those with short memories, I will use this column to remind readers of how close the global pig industry came to its own Ebola crisis fifteen years ago.

In 1998/99 a virus emerged in South East Asia (Malaysia and Singapore) which affected humans (patients exhibited encephalitis and respiratory illness) and had a high mortality rate. Almost 300 cases were reported and the case fatality rate approached 40% (just over 100 deaths occurred). The virus was named the Nipah virus (NiV) and its name originated from Sungai Nipah, a village in the Malaysian Peninsula. Crucially, NiV only caused a relatively mild disease in pigs (it had apparently circulated in domesticated swine since 1996) but the spread and fatal effects of NiV on humans was catastrophic. In Malaysia and Singapore, humans were apparently infected with Nipah virus through close contact with infected pigs. The NiV strain identified in this outbreak appeared to have been transmitted initially from bats to pigs (bat species were investigated as a source of the virus and flying foxes of the genus Pteropus were identified as the reservoir for NiV) with subsequent spread within pig populations. It’s likely that the initial transmission of NiV from bats to pigs occurred in late 1997/early 1998 through contamination of pig swill by bat excretions, as a result of migration of forest fruit bats to cultivated orchards and pig-farms, driven by fruiting failure of forest trees during the El Nino-related drought and man-made haze from deforestation fires in Indonesia in 1997-1998. If accurate, this explanation of the origins of NiV is another example of the unexpected consequences of climate change/environment destruction combined with poor bio-security on pig farms.

Malay pricesHuman infections came only from exposure to infected pigs and no incidence of person-to-person transmission was reported in the 1998/99 outbreak. In order to halt the spread of NiV more than a million pigs were culled, transport of pigs was curtailed, and pig farming was permanently banned in some high-risk areas. At this point it becomes clear that the NiV outbreak (like Ebola) had significant economic consequences for the pig industry – and that the global pig industry was just a hair’s breadth away from a global shift in demand that could have had an impact for decades.

 

This observation is supported by a recital of the direct economic impact of the Nipah virus in Malaysia. Consumers, terrified of catching Nipah virus from pigmeat, shunned pork in every shape and form.  Malaysia’s pig population was cut by almost 50% (from 2.4 million to 1.3 million head) and, even after one year, the Malaysian government did not feel confident enough to formally declare pork safe for human consumption: farm prices for pigs collapsed, the live export trade to Malaysia’s biggest market, Singapore, was halted completely (live pig exports from Malaysia are still non-existent 15 years later), and around 10% of pig farms went out of pig production forever. The Malaysian Government paid out more than RM37 million (about US$10 million) in compensation to 430 pig farmers whose pigs had to be killed during the disease control programme. Interestingly, whilst the loss of Malaysian pigs and pigmeat to Singapore hit pork consumption in that market in due course Australian exporters were able to establish sales of their chilled pork in Singapore and it became Australia’s principal export market. It’s an ill wind…….

It’s an open question as to what would happen to pork consumption if a Nipah-type virus outbreak occurred today. There was no Twitter, or web-based social media back in 1999, or ill-informed media speculation from the tabloids. It’s obvious though, that it would be much more likely that any such pig-related virus infection could have very serious consequences for the global pig industry in these “Ebola times” (not to mention HN1 Swine flu, SARS, Avian flu, etc). Meanwhile, I return to my opening statement, we have been lucky not to experience Ebola in Europe – or have had to fight a virus that is prevalent in pigs and has fatal consequences to humans.  Let’s hope our luck holds.