It was a scene straight out of a horror movie: dead pigs, possibly contaminated with a deadly virus, floating down a river, as news of a fatal swine disease gripped the city.
Over the past two weeks, at least 56 dead pigs have been reportedly dumped into the Marikina River, and some carcasses were also found in a creek in Quezon City, sending chills up the spine of pork-loving Filipinos who feared, among others, that their favorite protein source may no longer be safe to eat.
But all this is a needless scare — the height of irresponsibility, first of all, for hog owners to dump their hogs, afflicted with African swine fever (ASF), in the river in complete disregard of basic biosecurity protocols.
“It was utterly irresponsible on the part of the backyard raisers as they did not only violate current laws, but their misdoing also spread the disease pathogens much faster,” lamented Agriculture Secretary William Dar.
The public panic generated is unnecessary, because as the Department of Agriculture (DA) has taken pains to point out, ASF cannot be transmitted to humans, and that there is no epidemic, as the disease has fortunately not spread from pockets in Luzon where it had appeared. Most crucially, local pork and pork products are safe to eat.
Indeed, the DA has cautioned the public against the spread of “unverified and unvalidated reports” regarding the disease that could cause “irreversible damage” to the country’s swine industry — reputedly the sixth biggest in the world.
As of July 1, 2019, there were an estimated 12.7 million heads in the Philippines, of which 8.02 million pigs are raised in backyard farms, and 4.68 million in commercial farms. Most of the hog raisers are backyard growers, whose losses will be calamitous if the crisis is not managed well.
“The damage and economic losses caused by the recent water crisis in some parts of Metro Manila would be incomparable to the havoc and economic losses the ASF could bring into the whole country,” said Senate Majority Leader Migz Zubiri, who raised the alarm on the possible spread of ASF as early as March this year, following the reported presence of ASF in nearby Vietnam. “This is a very serious concern.”
The DA said on Monday the outbreak in the Philippines may, in fact, be over, as the ASF has been “managed, contained and controlled” in Barangay Pritil, Guiguinto, Bulacan, and in several barangays in Rodriguez, San Mateo and Antipolo in Rizal, due in part to the strict enforcement of the so-called 1-7-10 protocol to stem the further spread of the disease to other parts of the country.
This means quarantine within a one-kilometer radius from the hot zone; surveillance and limited animal movement within seven kilometers, and then the requirement to report pigs showing signs of the disease (loss of appetite, lack of energy and hemorrhages visible on the ears and flanks) within a 10-kilometer radius.
The viral disease typically afflicts pigs, warthogs and boars, and has a 100-percent mortality rate, causing death in as little as two days.
Still, even if ASF has been contained, the DA needs to do more, and move in concert with other government agencies such as the Bureau of Customs, airport officials and the National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS), to continue to allay the public’s fears and cushion the impact on the local swine industry.
Containing the virus will require the vigilance and cooperation of other stakeholders, from the large corporate hog producers who are called on to enhance biosecurity measures in their own facilities, to backyard raisers who must report incidents of unexplained and sudden deaths and properly dispose of the dead animals, and individual Filipinos who should not bring in banned pork products from countries that have been identified as hotbeds of ASF, such as China.
Dar and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III have both stressed that as long as the hogs passed through the proper process of slaughtering and preparation, the public should not fear eating pork.
Before slaughtering, a hog is validated and assessed by a veterinarian, who then issues a medical certificate. Once slaughtered, the meats are stamped with a seal from the National Meat Inspection Service — the assurance that it has passed the food safety measures imposed by the government. Consumers are thus urged to check the meat they purchase to ensure that it has passed the NMIS standards.
The government’s more critical task, on top of containing ASF, is ensuring that vigilance and proper information, not panic and anxiety, are what’s guiding the public’s response to this concern.
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