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The Threat of Sick Livestock

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
September 3, 2007

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In the past year, a mysterious disease ravaged (BusinessWeek) China’s pig population, with a death toll that could be as high as a million pigs, causing a sharp rise in pork prices. Chinese officials have identified the illness as blue-ear pig disease, a porcine respiratory and reproductive ailment. Although the disease is not known to be transmittable to humans, China’s handling of the incident has drawn comparisons (Economist) to its handling of other animal-human outbreaks, including the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, when the country denied there was a problem and at first declined requests for information. The Chinese government says there is no cover up and the situation is now under control. But it has yet to share animal tissue samples with international researchers, leading some global health experts to question (IHT) the diagnosis. Noting a similarly deadly outbreak in Vietnam, scientists fear that the disease may have mutated (Science) to a more dangerous form.

China and Vietnam’s pig problems come as other countries grappled this summer with several major outbreaks (TIME) in livestock and poultry, including avian flu, African swine fever, and foot-and-mouth disease. In most cases, authorities have moved quickly to contain the outbreaks, implementing measures such as vaccinations, culling, and trade bans. Some of these diseases affected only livestock populations, costing local industries sometimes millions of dollars in lost income. But other outbreaks—such as the avian flu—have led to human deaths, increasing concerns of a coming global pandemic.

Outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, SARS, and mad cow disease “have frightened the public, disrupted global commerce, caused massive economic losses, and jeopardized diplomatic relations” and share “a worrisome key characteristic: the ability to cross the Darwinian divide between animals and people,” notes a 2005 Foreign Affairs article. Explanations for the new zoonotic outbreaks vary. More than 70 percent of new human diseases originate in animals (Discover), the result of people moving into formerly wild areas. Dr. Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organization for Animal Health, argues that because of globalization and climate change—warmer weather has allowed disease-carrying vermin to expand their range—the world faces the “unprecedented” threat of “emerging and re-emerging animal diseases.” But he says recent responses to outbreaks have helped increase understanding of how to deal with them.

Researchers are trying to rapidly find answers to the human-animal disease connection through a range of virus-discovery projects (Wired). And governments and international organizations are moving to beef up monitoring and response for zoonotic disease outbreaks. Pointing to the poultry connection to avian flu and SARS, a report (PDF) from the UN’s World Health Organization report says the next global pandemic is likely to be of avian origin and cites “remarkable” international coordination on reducing pandemic risks. But the Economist questions whether some countries will meet commitments to notify international health authorities on emerging health threats and to stockpile and share vaccines.

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