HONG KONG (Reuters) - A pig disease that swept through 10 provinces in China decimating the swine population and ramping up pork prices was caused by a new and highly pathogenic strain of blue ear disease, Chinese scientists said.
The epidemic spread to almost half of China in 2006 and was atypical of previous outbreaks of the disease, the scientists said in a paper published in the June issue of the Public Library of Science.
It affected more than 2 million pigs and killed 400,000 of them, they said.
However, China’s top vet said earlier this month that a variation of the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), or blue ear disease, killed a million pigs in 2006 and more than 18,000 hogs in the first five months of 2007.
The scientists revealed details of the new virus strain and said it may be responsible for several new and unusually severe symptoms, even in adult pigs.
(The article is freely available here)
Although a serious swine disease, PRRS in the past mainly caused reproductive failure in pregnant sows or respiratory tract distress in suckling pigs. Usually, it was the piglets that succumbed.
But this new virus strain spread very quickly, resulting in “unparalleled large-scale outbreaks” and caused high fever (40-42 degrees Celsius), shivering and a reddish rash brought on by congestion in the blood capillaries, the scientists wrote.
Autopsies confirmed that multiple organs, including the brain, spleen, lymph nodes, liver, heart, tonsil and kidney were infected, they said.
“To our surprise, many grown pigs also died during this epidemic period, which is unlike the case for typical PRRS virus infection,” the scientists said.
Using genetic analyses, the scientists discovered changes in the molecular structure of the virus which made it unusually aggressive.
“Environmental factors such as temperature and relative humidity in the summer and secondary bacterial infections may contribute to the generation of highly virulent PRRS,” they said.
China has stepped up its fight against the virus, which has caused enormous economic losses and contributed to soaring domestic pork prices, even feeding into national inflation levels. It launched a vaccination campaign last week.
The PRRS virus was first recognized in the United States in the mid-1980s and the disease costs the U.S. swine industry some US$600 million each year.