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Pennsylvania has been gearing up for months to fight African swine fever, but a recent training exercise offered a reminder that on-farm practices remain the state’s most important defense.

“Every individual farm practicing vigilant biosecurity diminishes the chances of disease originating in their herd and causing widespread, devastating losses,” said State Veterinarian Kevin Brightbill.

Pennsylvania was one of 14 major pork-producing states where USDA led a major disease response practice Sept. 23-26.

The effort simulated the whole response procedure from the moment the disease is reported on a farm.

“We’re trying to be as prepared as possible in case it does show up,” said Gregory Martin, a Penn State Extension poultry educator who works on emergency preparedness issues.

In the past year or so, African swine fever has swept across the Eastern Hemisphere, from Belgium to Vietnam.

The disease doesn’t affect people, but for pigs, the consequences are grisly &tstr; overheating, difficulty breathing, usually death.

The disease has not been found in the Americas, but up to half of the pigs in China, the world’s top pork producer, have died or been culled.

“This is very, very serious. If this comes to Pennsylvania, it would be a major impact,” Martin said.

The U.S. is not alone in trying to protect its pork industry from the disease.

Mexico, Denmark, Taiwan and other countries have held drills for African swine fever this year, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health. Australia has held three.

Brightbill led Pennsylvania’s response, which included Harrisburg staff from multiple agencies and a team that visited a pig farm.

At the farm, veterinarians and animal health inspectors rehearsed confirming the disease, securing the location, notifying surrounding farms, disposing of animals, and disinfecting the site.

Diagnosticians from the state vet lab system ran samples, while other state employees handled mapping, communication and other concerns.

“No actual animals were killed, but blood and serum testing and biosecurity measures were real,” Brightbill said.

The event took place mainly during business hours, but extended well beyond that some days.

Ag Secretary Russell Redding was not actively involved for the entire 96-hour exercise, but he was available the whole time to assist with problems, get in contact with other Cabinet secretaries, and deploy Ag Department staff who don’t report to Brightbill.

Redding said he came out of the drill confident in the state lab system’s ability to handle the surge in testing required by an outbreak.

He was also pleased with the cooperation between the Ag Department and the State Police, PennDOT, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and Department of Environmental Protection.

Chain of Command

Martin donned disposable coveralls and booties as part of the on-farm response team.

The group didn’t go inside any buildings but did get a look at the equipment and the type of structures that might be present at an infected farm.

The team worked through a scenario &tstr; say there are three barns and one is infected &tstr; and came up with a response plan based on protocol and the farm layout.

A USDA staffer visited and reviewed the plan with the on-site incident commander, who was the state’s regional veterinarian. At the end of the day, the group debriefed.

Pennsylvania leaders have done similar disease exercises at least once before &tstr; in 2015, after an avian influenza outbreak in the Midwest turned into the nation’s worst animal health disaster.

Swine fever would require a slightly different response than bird flu, but the basic strategy, called the incident command system, is the same one used in many types of emergencies.

All responders have a defined role within a clear chain of command. This structure lends itself to rapid mobilization and the swift spread of information, at least in theory.

The practice session gave a chance to work out the kinks and make sure the sprawling effort works well in actuality too.

That way, “when things happen, we’re not guessing,” Martin said.

The Best Defense

A well-oiled response is imperative should swine fever strike a U.S. pig farm, but biosecurity still offers the best shot at keeping the disease off a farm in the first place.

Biosecurity entails excluding any potential disease sources from areas with live pigs. Typical steps include limiting visitors to the farm, requiring people to shower when entering and leaving the pig barn, and cleaning trucks that transport pigs.

“They’re not that fragile, but on the other hand, we never know what people are bringing in,” Martin said.

The hog farms he’s visited are doing a fairly good job of putting biosecurity into practice.

Martin also highly recommends having a written biosecurity plan, which alleviates the need to make decisions on the fly.

A biosecurity plan should have a primary strategy as well as a backup plan for each element. And plans should be reviewed with the integrator or a veterinarian to ensure completeness, Martin said.

From what Martin has seen, many pig farms now have written plans.

Penn State held several plan writing sessions this fall, and Martin thinks integrators have been pushing their farmers to get the documents.

On top of the plan, Martin suggests pig farmers prominently post a list of phone numbers to call in an emergency, especially the vet who serves the farm and the Ag Department’s regional veterinarian.

Any time multiple animals are down at one time, that call list should be used, he said.

A Grim Question

One question the swine fever drill left unresolved is how to dispose of potentially thousands of dead pigs at each site.

“You’re not, most likely, going to be transporting them,” Redding said.

There are several methods for disposing of dead livestock on site, but none of them work in all situations, Martin said.

Composting, his preferred method, requires large amounts of organic material like sawdust to be brought to the farm. Burial requires a site that won’t contaminate water sources.

Incineration and chemical or microbial digestion are limited by the capacity of the equipment.

After the drill, Brightbill hopes to improve communication with backyard pig producers, including 4-H and FFA youths.

“One individual disregarding quarantine rules could have a devastating impact on their neighbors and the entire industry,” he said.

By the same token, every farmer who practices vigilant biosecurity helps protect the entire swine sector, he said.

To avoid delays during an outbreak, Brightbill is urging all pig producers to have an approved biosecurity plan on file with the state Ag Department.

Biosecurity plans should also help business keep moving, Redding said. States and farms with plans might have an easier time moving pigs during an outbreak, and strong evidence of biosecurity could give other countries the confidence to continue importing American pork.