Pig Disease in China Worries the World

Lo Jinyuan's sows gave birth to stillborn piglets.
Lo Jinyuan's sows gave birth to stillborn piglets. "Before we knew something was wrong, they were all dead," he said. (Photos By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 16, 2007

FOSHAN, China -- At first, it was just some of the piglets. The mother gave birth to 13, all of them stillborn. Within a few weeks, however, she and other adult pigs in neighboring stalls became feverish and died. By the end of the summer, all but a handful of the village's 300 pigs had succumbed to the mysterious disease.

"It was quick, very quick. Before we knew something was wrong, they were all dead," said Lo Jinyuan, a 55-year-old pig farmer in the village of Shandi.

Moving rapidly from one farm to the next, the virus has been devastating pig communities throughout China for more than a year, wiping out entire herds, driving pork prices up nearly 87 percent in a year and helping push the country's inflation rate to its highest levels since 1996.

The Chinese government has admitted that the swine deaths amount to an epidemic but contends that the situation is under control.

China says it is moving swiftly to stop the infections by quarantining and slaughtering the affected pigs. It says its researchers have developed an effective vaccine in record time for the likely cause -- blue ear pig disease, a reproductive and respiratory illness that is highly fatal in pigs but that so far does not seem to pose danger to humans. And it maintains that it has been "open and transparent" all along.

Some experts, both inside and outside China, are skeptical, citing the government's handling of the avian flu outbreak in 2004 and SARS in 2002 and 2003. While China's central government has made numerous improvements since then in how it deals with infectious disease control and informs the public, it has once again been slow to share scientific data and tissue samples with other countries.

As a result, there is worry that while China is lagging, the virus is quickly turning into a global problem. China does not export pork to the United States, but the virus has already been found in pigs in China's southern neighbors, Vietnam and Burma.

"We are concerned that with international traffic this particular virus could enter other continents -- Europe or Africa or the Americas," said Juan Lubroth, head of infectious diseases for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome. "We have no firsthand or independent evaluation of the virus or vaccine. It's all been conducted by the Chinese in China."

While China's previous reluctance to share information may have been the legacy of years of secrecy, its reasons for withholding information this time may be about something else: business interests.

For China, one the largest exporters of pork and pork products in the world and the target of recent criticism for the safety of its food and other exports, "there are economic-commercial incentives to cover up," said Yanzhong Huang, editor of the Journal of Global Health Governance and an assistant professor at Seton Hall University.

Vincent Martin, an animal health officer for the FAO in Beijing, said Chinese officials he met with last week said they were not opposed to sending samples to overseas laboratories but would only do so when "intellectual property issues" were resolved.

"We discussed this issue at length. . . . We decided to come up with an agreement between the Chinese government and any laboratory that receives the virus, a clear agreement of the two parties that it is just to be used for scientific purposes," Martin said.


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