The virus – which has no cure – is moving rapidly and could ruin the UK’s £350million pork export industry and push up the price of meat, campaigners have warned.
The African strain of swine flu (ASF) has now reached the EU, Express.co.uk can reveal, and industry lobbyists claim it would lead to animal culling on the scale of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, which led to scores of UK farmers being financially ruined.
Just a thimbleful of ASF infected pig manure could spread the illness to the entire UK pig population, according to the National Farmers Union, and it has been likened to ebola in humans.
Richard Longthorp, chairman of the National Pig Association, warned with the EU’s open borders it could now spread more quickly.
He is calling for assurances from the Government that all is being done to prevent any infected pig carcasses, or pork, entering the country and for monitoring of feral pigs here so the spread could be limited should it arrive.
The current strain started in Georgia and is now known to be in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There are fears it could spread to the UK as wild boar from eastern Europe is sold at markets across the country.
It is passed by close contact, sometimes ticks, and sharing food. Symptoms which come five to 15 days after infection include internal bleeding, lethargy, loss of appetite and red patches on the skin. Nearly all pigs die within a week of signs appearing.
Unlike the European swine flu that caused widespread concern here in 2009, the African virus is not harmful to humans.
But if the disease makes it here, British farmers would be banned from exporting their meat, which would cripple many of them as an average of 27 per cent of each pig is shipped overseas.
Mr Longthorp said: “Foot and mouth wrecked families and businesses and if we get African swine flu here the same would happen. Pigs would have to be destroyed on a huge scale and many farmers would go out of business.
NPA chairman Richard Longthorp with piglets on his east Yorkshire farm
The NPA fears a return to scenes like this during the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis if ASF gets here
This map shows spread of African Swine Flu from Russia to Eastern Europe
Foot and mouth wrecked families and businesses and if we get African swine flu here the same would happen. Pigs would have to be destroyed on a huge scale and many farmers would go out of business.
Any infected meat that got in would be brought in illegally as all areas that have suffered outbreaks are banned from exporting their pork.
But Mr Longthorp said he knows that wild boar sausages from Lithuania, where it has also reached, are still being sold at British farmers’ markets.
He said: “Because Lithuania is split into regions and not all areas have had infections, some of the regions are still allowed to export. But the problem is wild boars are spreading the disease and they do not respect the regional boundaries so how can anywhere in Lithuania be entirely sure?”
He said the current price of pigs at around £1.35 a kilo would likely drop if the disease struck, but in the long term following major culls pork would become scarce and its price would rise for consumers.
Last week members of the National Pig Association visited Brussels to raise their fears over the lack of a full ban on Lithuanian pork exports with EU commissioners.
And just this week it published a briefing for MPs and parliamentary candidates which warned of the threat.
It called on them to “champion adequate border post resources to improve the nation’s chances” of keeping it out.
It added: “Be aware of the threats posed by the growing number feral pigs, so-called wild boar, around Britain, particularly the Forest of Dean. As is evident with African swine fever in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, feral pigs and wild boar spread disease, so their location and movement should be monitored and their numbers managed.”
The association also called for “fair compensation” for pig farmers if subjected to movement controls or whose livestock is slaughtered.
UK pigs would be all but wiped out by the disease according to the NPA
A computer picture of an African Swine Flu virus in a host cell
British pork prices could rise if mass culling happened over here
“All pig-keepers must consider themselves personally responsible for ensuring it does not get onto their own farm and pay special attention to vehicle biosecurity.”
Statistics held by the World Organisation for Animal Health show there were 39 fresh outbreaks among wild boar in Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Russia, where domestic pigs are also affected, since the start of February, with the latest in Poland on Monday.
The disease was first identified in kenya in 1920.
Small outbreaks occurred in Europe, but these were eradicated in the 1990s.
The latest outbreak dates back to 2007 in Georgia, due to imported contaminated pork in rubbish brought by boat from Africa, that was dumped where local pigs fed. It broke in to Russia in 2008.
Georgian health workers decontaminate a tractor’s wheels during an outbreak
Last December Russian authorities incinerated tens of thousands of pigs and closed roads in an attempt to contain an emerging outbreak. It lost 300,000 animals over the year.
In Ukraine, away from the war-torn areas, 30,000 piglets were lost over a few weeks.
In east Russia, the disease has been detected on the doorstep of Kazakhstan, which shares a long border with China, home to more than one billion pigs, so it is feared it could go global. China also risks importing the virus through its growing trade with African nations.
A year ago, ahead of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi on the Black Sea in Russia George Eustice, Food and Farming Minister, due to fears over infected meat on sale in the area, assured farmers strict controls would be in force on individuals bringing meat into the country.
Defra is currently issuing alerts to the UK Border Force to increase vigilance, but insisted the risk remained low.
A spokeswoman said: “There is a very low risk of ASF spreading to the UK as a result of the cases in wild boar in the Baltic States and Poland. However, we issue regular alerts to the UK Border Force to check passengers bringing in products of animal origin from affected countries.
“We will continue to provide advice to industry on effective biosecurity measures and monitor the situation through our international disease surveillance procedures.”