The pig-killing disease known as African swine fever (ASF) is now on Australia’s doorstep, with confirmation of several outbreaks in Timor-Leste.
- African swine fever (ASF) has been found in Timor-Leste, around 650 kilometres from Australia
- Despite being on ‘Asia’s doorstep’, the Darwin Airport does not have a working detector dog
- According to one analyst, the current spread of ASF could see the world’s pig population halve by the middle of next year
It is estimated the disease has already wiped out 25 per cent of the world’s pig population.
According to Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, there have been 100 reported outbreaks of African swine fever in smallholder pig farms in the Dili municipality, in which 405 pigs have died.
Meat and livestock analyst Simon Quilty, who has been researching the disease’s spread throughout China and South-East Asia, said ASF was now 650 kilometres from Australia.
“The presence of African swine fever in Timor is alarming to say the least, having jumped 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres [from the Philippines and Vietnam] and puts the disease on Australia’s doorstep,” he said.
“The cause of contamination is still unknown but if other infected countries are a guide, then humans are the likely cause of migration via either contaminated food products or simply [from being] present on clothing and shoes and carried into Timor from an infected country.”
NT a ‘hotspot’ for possible incursion
Dr Peter Saville, manager of emergency animal disease preparedness in the Northern Territory, said while all states and territories had been preparing their responses to a possible incursion of ASF, the NT was an obvious concern for authorities.
“We’ve been identified as a hotspot because we have a lot of backyard pigs and we have a close association with South-East Asia,” he said.
“We are working towards getting everyone registered who is keeping pigs, so we can contact them rapidly if we need to.
“We do have plans in place and exercised them recently and had really good responses from Police, Fire and Emergency Services, the NT Cattlemen’s Association, and the Chief Minister’s office among others, so the cooperation is building.
“And today, all of the practising veterinarians in the NT were notified of the outbreak in Timor and asked to report any significant cases.”
Dr Guy Weerasinghe, a Darwin-based veterinary policy officer with the Department of Agriculture, has recently been training remote Indigenous rangers in how to identify the symptoms of African swine fever.
Dr Weerasinghe said the NT’s large feral pig population was at risk of infection.
“Feral pigs can enter into what we call a ‘carrier status’, so they can trot around and spread the disease around,” Mr Weerasinghe said.
“We have a very large feral pig population across northern Australia, so they could spread it all across northern Australia and potentially down south.
“This virus is very hardy, so you could get [infected] feral pigs trotting around, then someone could walk through that and get contaminated shoes, then walk into a piggery and potentially affect our domestic pigs.”
Hunters and pig owners in the NT been asked to report any unusual pig deaths to the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.
No detector dogs in Darwin
Earlier this month the Federal Government brought together an ’emergency roundtable of experts’ to discuss ways of stopping ASF from entering the country.
Australian airports were identified as the mostly likely path for the disease to enter, and the lack of resources at airports was raised as a significant issue.
For example, the number of detector dogs protecting Australia’s borders has been cut by more than half in recent years, going from 80 in 2012 to 36 in 2019.
The international airport at Darwin, which has nine inbound flights from Dili a week, is one airport where there are no sniffer dogs.
Authorities instead rely on “detection technologies such as x-ray to assist with screening of passengers”.
Dr Saville said it would be better if Darwin Airport had a working detector dog.
“It would certainly increase our ability to detect food-stuffs that are being brought through,” he said.
“We regard the introduction of contaminated food products as the major risk of entry for this disease.”
In a statement, the Federal Department of Agriculture said it was monitoring the risk of ASF across the region.
“Additional briefings are being provided to biosecurity officers who risk assess and manage travellers arriving from Timor-Leste into Darwin,” it said.
“The department is writing directly to airlines arriving from ASF countries so airline crew are appropriately briefed to support passengers in understanding biosecurity requirements and completing accurate declarations before entering Australia.
“The department has provided information in-country in Timor-Leste to high-risk cohorts, such as seasonal farm workers travelling to the Northern Territory, and is looking at further options for offshore messaging.”
Mr Quilty said each year about 20 million travellers passed through Australia’s international airports.
“The department screens about 6.3 million of those travellers per year of which 4 per cent are deemed as a high biosecurity risk,” he said.
“Now that’s a lot of people, that’s 250,000 people going through our airports every year that are deemed as high risk.”
World’s pig population crashing
According to Mr Quilty, Timor-Leste is the 10th nation in Asia to have the disease.
The other nations are China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines and Cambodia, which along with Timor have a combined total of 522 million pigs out of an estimated global population of 770 million pigs.
“The recent accelerated rate of contamination in China could see an estimated 70 per cent of all pigs gone by the end of 2019,” he said.
“But if using the same percentage of infection across all of Asia over a similar 16-month period, this would equate to 365 million head or 48 per cent of global pigs … [being] gone by mid-next year.”
Let that sink in for a moment: nearly one in every two pigs dead by the middle of next year.
African swine fever facts:
- The virus is a highly contagious disease that can affect domestic and wild pigs
- It is usually fatal in infected pigs
- There is no treatment or vaccine available
- The most likely sources of infection are pork products, porcine genetic material and incursions by infected pigs
On Twitter, the new CEO of Australian Pork Limited, Margo Andrae, said when it came to biosecurity, everyone had a role to play.
“Just returned from global pork conference and heard every measure from fences, work on vaccines, through to military action on wild pigs,” she wrote.
“Australian industry and Government working hard to stop entry, but also be prepared in case.
“Asking every Aussie to be aware and not bring any meat product in.”