North America prepares for African swine fever after outbreak decimates pigs in China

North America will soon test its defenses against an outbreak of African swine fever as the disease decimates the pig supply in China.

An outbreak could skyrocket pork prices and have serious economic consequences, experts say.

African swine fever is not contagious to humans, but it’s a “severe viral disease of pigs” that can spread very rapidly in herds, Iowa State University officials say. It’s never hit the United States.

But the U.S., Mexico and Canada are preparing for the worst.

“Recent events demonstrate that (African swine fever) is an international disease that knows no borders and can move rapidly from one country to the next,” the chief veterinary officers for the three countries said in a joint statement released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The disease has hit China’s pork supply hard in the past year, reducing its pig herd by almost one-third, the Wall Street Journal reported. Pork prices are up 50 percent over the past year — and jumped 18 percent during two weeks in August, the newspaper reported.

It’s not just China. Myanmar, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia also have outbreaks, according to Pork Checkoff. Additionally, the virus is spreading further into eastern Europe as Serbia reported its first cases of the disease in August, according to Bloomberg. The virus first spread to eastern Europe from Russia in 2015, Bloomberg reported.

As North America watches it spread, the U.S., Mexico and Canada have created a “working group” to keep the countries free of the disease by coordinating efforts, according to the news release. Part of the plan will be a drill in October to test the authorities for a response to the potential outbreak, officials said.

Oklahoma State Veterinarian Rod Hall says an outbreak could have a “significant impact” on pork producers and communities, according to KFOR.

“(African swine fever) is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and wild pigs of all ages,” Hall told the Oklahoma City TV station. “However, it is not a threat to human health, is not a food safety issue and cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans.”

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Chacour Koop is a Real-Time reporter based in Kansas City. Previously, he reported for the Associated Press, Galveston County Daily News and Daily Herald in Chicago.