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To Fight Fatal Animal Disease, Vets in Asia Turn to Nuclear Technology

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ASF, which affects pigs, has recently hit seven countries in Asia, a region where pork is a major source of food. (Photo: B. Douangngeun/National Animal Health Laboratory in Lao PDR)

Veterinarians are joining forces in the fight against the African Swine Fever, or ASF, an animal disease that has recently hit seven countries in Asia with devastating effects on the pig market in a region where pork is a major source of food. Nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques are central to combatting the spread of the disease, rapidly and accurately detecting the virus before more animals are affected. The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is supporting national laboratories in their diagnostic efforts with equipment, expertise, advice and training.

“The disease is difficult to control in Viet Nam. The outbreak has spread to 62 of our 63 provinces,” said Bac Van Ngo, Director of the Department of Animal Health at Viet Nam’s National Center for Veterinary Diagnosis. “We need to control it if we are to protect our livestock industry.”

Strict sanitary and biosecurity measures are applied by Vietnamese authorities to contain and eventually eliminate the disease. To date, over a few months only, 4.3 million pigs in Viet Nam — 10% of the country’s pig population — have been culled or have died because of ASF infection.

Although the disease is harmless to humans, it can have a tremendous impact on a country’s livestock, food security, and rural poor livelihoods. The virus spreads through infected animals’ secretions and can move from farm to farm because it stays on workers’ clothes, shoes and on fodder and contaminated meat.

No vaccine against ASF exists; the most effective solution is to have an early and accurate detection system in place. “Without our detection capabilities, we would be facing an even worse situation,” Van Ngo said. “We had not known much about African Swine Fever, not even our own vets had”.

Luckily enough, eight months before it was detected, a group of Vietnamese veterinary diagnosticians attended a training course, at the FAO/IAEA Animal Production and Health Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, on the use of nuclear, nuclear-derived and conventional techniques to detect ASF and other infectious animal diseases. The course gave them the knowledge and tools that helped them detect ASF in February 2019, when it was first spotted in the country, Van Ngo said.

Beyond Viet Nam

The current outbreak started in August 2018 in China, which shares a border with Viet Nam. Ever since, the IAEA has been supporting countries at risk in the region, such as Mongolia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), in rapid diagnosis.

While Viet Nam was hit hard due to its dense pig population, Mongolian authorities managed to contain the disease — partly because of the country having fewer pigs and vast land between farms, which made the spread from animal to animal harder.

“We were the first to suffer the spillover from China,” said Basan Ganzorig, Director of Mongolia’s State Central Veterinary Laboratory. “Our peak was in January 2019, but thanks to the use of technologies provided by the Agency to quickly detect it and understand where it came from, we were able to limit the movement of pigs and therefore limited ASF spread.”

In Mongolia, veterinarians trained at the FAO/IAEA Animal Production and Health Laboratory managed to identify the first virus strain within three days, and determined its origin within seven days, which was key in halting the disease spread. “Now, thanks to the IAEA, we can detect the virus within a day”.

Sharing a long border with Viet Nam, Lao PDR has also been struck by ASF, albeit mildly. “Authorities had been preparing for this to happen for almost a year,” said Bounlom Douangngeun, Director of the National Animal Health Laboratory in the country.

“We were ready to perform tests to support the containment of the disease,” he said. “Now we have the capacity to test the samples ourselves in the country and, if a sample is suspected to be infected, we can get our own laboratory results within six hours.”

Lao PDR is in a better position than Viet Nam because most pigs are free-roaming and scattered on hills separated by rivers. ASF, for now, has only been detected in remote areas. Veterinarians from both countries are working closely to share information and strengthen border control capacities, with the support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Thailand, free of ASF, is also at risk.                                                          

“We have strengthened control and surveillance, and we are in close contact with Lao PDR and other countries hoping that they will be the last battlefield for the virus,” said Banjong Jongrakwattana, Director of the National Institute of Animal Health in Thailand. “We hope that it will not spread anywhere else in the region.”

Jongrakwattana’s Lab is one of the 19 Asian national laboratories that form the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VETLAB) network platform of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division. VETLAB network members benefit from the lessons learned and best practices of veterinarians from Africa, where the disease originated in the 1920s.

“VETLAB is a platform where professionals share experience, tools and protocols,” said Giovanni Cattoli, Head of the Animal Production and Health Laboratory at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division. “For now, the network provides us with valuable knowledge we can draw from to make sure the disease does not spread even further.”

African Swine Fever has also affected Cambodia, North Korea and, recently, Myanmar. Outbreaks in Europe’s Poland, Belgium and Hungary were reported in 2018, followed by Slovakia this year. “We need to continuously build diagnostics capacities,” Cattoli said. “The disease is almost on everybody’s doorstep.”

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