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US Customs & Border Patrol: ASF transmission from recent Haitian immigrants “Not an Imminent Risk”

Media coverage around the world showed a Haitian border crisis at the US-Mexico border all while Haiti announced is it positive for African Swine Fever (ASF); so what's the risk of potential spread of ASF from Haitian immigrants?

11 October 2021, at 2:32am

While much of the United States conversation around the recent influx of immigrants at the U.S. southern border is around potential COVID-19 infections, there’s another area of concern: the potential spread of African Swine Fever (ASF) to the United States.

Several weeks ago, The Pig Site reported that Haiti suffered its first confirmed outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF). According to the most recent data from OIE, there’s still just the one confirmed case, although multiple cases in the neighboring Dominican Republic have been reported.

However, given the recent influx of 15,000 Haitian immigrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, and up to 12,000 released into the U.S., this raises the question as to whether this has increased the risk of ASF entering the country.

Risk of ASF infection from border crossings.

According to a statement from US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), “There were concerns [about ASF] when the reports first came up...and it is being tracked closely. However, overall, it’s not an imminent risk.”

CBP went on to detail the following reasons why the risk is low:

  • CBP has the necessary safeguards in place to ensure products carried are secured and safeguarded
  • Most of these immigrants have been physically outside of Haiti for an extended period of time, living in other Central American countries prior to moving north
  • Minimal products of concern are being presented

Currently, the most likely mode of ASF transmission is through contaminated meat products. Thus, CBP & USDA are focusing prevention efforts on inspecting and securing those products, both at ports of entry and during border crossings.

Given that most of these immigrants have taken up residence in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and other countries, and have only recently made their way to the US-Mexico border, this means that the chance of them coming into contact with a recent case of ASF in Haiti is extremely low.

However, low doesn’t mean zero. In terms of how much risk is acceptable, Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center, offered the following context:

“Yes, let’s get that number as close to zero as we can with the resources we have,” he said. “But understanding that things will slip through, we haven’t had a case of FMD [foot mouth disease] in the country since 1929. However, it would be incredible to assume that we haven’t had the FMD virus get into the country in that time.”

What happens in the event of an outbreak?

Although the risk of ASF infection from recent immigration from Haiti is extremely low, we still have the first reported cases of ASF in the Americas in over three decades, both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As a result, it behooves US producers and others in the industry to consider their state of preparedness for a potential outbreak.

According to Dr. Rosemary Stifford with APHIS, if the USDA was to detect an ASF-positive case within the US, it would trigger a number of federal, state, tribal, and local emergency response plans. This would mean a mandatory 72-hour movement standstill for all live swine and semen movements, which should give USDA the opportunity to evaluate the issue and the extent of the issue.

However, as we have seen over the past three years in China, ASF spreads very quickly, and a major consequence is an uptick in pig slaughtering. This drives the price down, while at the same time increased biosecurity measures drive production costs up. It’s not an overstatement to say that an outbreak could turn the US pork industry upside down.

Of course, it’s important to note that there are no documented cases of ASF jumping from animals to humans, either through contact with live animals or through consumption of meat products. The primary risk comes through spreading to other animals.

Right now, there is no approved treatment or vaccine for ASF, which means USDA will rely on quarantine and movement controls to contain the virus. This is why early response and information is critical.

In terms of US preparedness for an ASF infection, Sundberg said that we’ve never been better.

“Let’s compare it to when we found out that ASF was in China in 2018. If we were at a 2 [on a scale of 1 to 10] then, we’re at an 8 now. And we’re not as good as we will be next year, or the year after that. This is a continuous improvement project,” said Sundberg.

How should producers prepare for an ASF outbreak?

For prevention, all producers should review their biosecurity measures on their farms for any kind of international contact, as well as any contact with feral pigs. Contact can include direct interaction with the herd, as well as items like feed ingredients that are imported from overseas.

Additionally, producers should question their workers and anyone that comes to the farm about their international contacts. Whether or not you have international visitors to the farm, they may have a relative who brought contaminated meat products with them or otherwise had contact with ASF.

Producers should also reach out to their state animal health officials and state veterinarians to find out the types of things they’re going to need in the event we have a confirmed positive in the US.

All producers should be familiar with the clinical signs of ASF:

  • High fever
  • Decreased appetite and weakness
  • Red, blotchy skin or skin lesions
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Coughing and difficulty breathing

Immediately report animals with any of these signs to state or federal animal health officials or call USDA’s toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593 for appropriate testing and investigation.

Additionally, there are a number of resources from the National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council websites on what you should talk to your feed supplier about regarding the sourcing of imported products. Keep in mind that although there’s a low likelihood of ASF contamination, in the unlikely event that there is, it would be a direct pipeline to your herd. Thus, proactive and early detection is the best form of prevention available.

Headline image from US CBP website. Photo credit: Josh Denmark