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African swine fever may spread to Europe: FAO

MILAN (Reuters) - African swine fever (ASF), a viral disease harmless to people but lethal to pigs, is likely to spread beyond Russia and the Caucasus region into Europe, the United Nations’ food agency said on Thursday.

ASF, for which there is no vaccine, is now established in Georgia, Armenia and southern Russia, with an increasing number of long-distance jump outbreaks in northern areas this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

Long-distance jumps are food-borne, with virus surviving in pig meat products carried by travelers and setting off a new outbreak at the destination where food scraps may be fed to pigs, the FAO said.

“African swine fever is fast becoming a global issue,” Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, said in a statement.

“It now poses an immediate threat to Europe and beyond. Countries need to be on the alert and to strengthen their preparedness and contingency plans,” he said.

ASF was introduced into Georgia from southern Africa in 2006 entering through the Black Sea port of Poti, where garbage from a ship was taken to a dump where pigs came to feed, FAO said.

Currently, ASF is spreading northwards at the rate of roughly 350 km a year. Usually, ASF has distinct seasonal outbreaks in the summer and autumn. But long-distance jumps have also occurred as the ASF wave travels northwards.

The frequency of such jumps is increasing as the originally infected territory enlarges, while the ASF virus strain now spreading is a very aggressive one, the Rome-based FAO said.

BUFFER ZONE IN RUSSIA

ASF is generally prevalent and endemic in countries of sub-Saharan Africa, while in Europe the disease is endemic in the Italian island of Sardinia, according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Organization The disease was also present in Spain and Portugal from 1960 to the mid-1990s with the last outbreak in Portugal in 1999, according to OIE and Britain’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

Europe also had outbreaks of another viral disease of pigs, classical swine fever, or hog cholera, in the past few years. In the late 1990s, the Netherlands had to cull millions of pigs hit by the virus which is not dangerous to humans.

Several outbreaks happened in other countries including Germany and Bulgaria in the 2000s.

Russia said in April it would need 10-12 billion roubles ($351.4 million-$421.6 million) and 7 years to extinguish the rapidly spreading ASF with a plan which foresees setting up a buffer zone in the south of the country.

At the start of the year 17,000 pigs had either died from ASF in Russia or had to be culled, the country’s chief veterinarian said in April. Last year some 60,000 pigs had to be culled or died of ASF in Russia.

Strategies to tackle the disease include quarantine, on-farm security and other measures aimed at minimizing the risk of introduction and establishing of ASF.

Early-warning contingency plans include epidemiological information-gathering, training and awareness campaigns.

Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova; editing by Keiron Henderson

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