Since the 1960s there have been outbreaks of African swine fever in France, Italy, Malta, Belgium and Holland. The disease, which is endemic in most of Southern Africa, is highly contagious. The virus can persist in meat up to 15 weeks, processed hams up to six months and up to one month in contaminated pens.
This week scientists at the Institute for Animal Health's Pirbright Laboratory will announce a complete genome sequence for the African swine fever virus, which will be used as a template for vaccine design as part of a new joint £2 million project funded by the Wellcome Trust's 'animal health in the developing world' initiative.
Project Leader Dr Linda Dixon from the Institute for Animal Health said, "African swine fever is a deadly pig disease that is having a devastating economic impact on many of Africa's farmers and rural poor. This joint project brings together expertise from the Institute for Animal Health, the Royal Veterinary College and partners in France, Spain, Portugal and a number of African countries to develop vaccines and carry out vital field studies."
Dr Chris Oura, head of the Institute for Animal Health reference laboratory for African swine fever, said, "There is an urgent requirement to develop an effective vaccine to support disease control programmes in Africa."
African swine fever virus is spread from wild warthogs to domestic pigs through the bites of infected ticks. These ticks can remain infected in pig houses for up to eight years and can even live without feeding for up to five years. "Poor infrastructure in many African countries also makes it difficult to ensure effective control measures such as rapid diagnosis, good sanitation and movement restrictions."
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations considers that options for control of the disease in Africa are very constrained, and the use of 'stamping out' must be critically evaluated for impact on the livelihoods of farmers, the loss of a valuable genetic resource base, and in terms of animal welfare.
If candidate vaccines can meet efficacy requirements then there would be an immediate market for their use, and great interest in the establishment of international vaccine reserves.