Infected Alberta pig farm using makeshift immunization program to fight deadly virus

Feeding sows the feces of infected piglets is one of the few ways producers can slow the spread of a deadly pork virus which was detected in Alberta for the first time this week.

Feeding pigs infected feces aims to halt Alberta's first porcine epidemic diarrhea outbreak

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, known as PED, has been found at a 400-head hog operation in Alberta. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

Feeding sows the feces of infected piglets — a makeshift form of immunization — is one of the few ways producers can slow the spread of a deadly pork virus detected in Alberta for the first time this week.

There is no vaccine to inoculate against the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, a disease that has killed millions of piglets around the world.  

"There is no commercial vaccine that is effective," said Frank Marshall, a Camrose-based veterinarian specializing in swine health and a sessional instructor in veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary.  

"Sadly, our only method to gain that immunity is to expose the animals to the baby pig feces."

The porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, known as PED, has been found at a 400-head hog operation in the province — the first-ever reported case of PED in Alberta.

PED infects the cells lining the small intestine of a pig. It is generally considered fatal, especially among younger animals which haven't developed the reserves to fight off the disease and absorb nutrients. 

For newborn piglets, that is, those less than a week old, mortality rates are up to 100 per cent.

Symptoms in sows include loose feces or not eating, while piglets will be dehydrated and have watery diarrhea. 

'It's the only way' 

Operators grappling with an active outbreak must attempt to build herd immunity by exposing pigs to the active virus found in feces, Marshall said. 

"The PED disease cranks out so much virus in piglet feces, we actually use a little Swiffer pad, wipe the crate and then that can be put into water in the feeding trough for the sows."

Four to five weeks after exposure to the virus, sows will express milk that can protect her piglets from future infection.

"What we're aiming at is to provide the piglet with lactogenic immunity, which means that every drop of milk has antibodies in it," Marshall said.

"When consumed by the piglet it will block the risk of this virus from attacking the gut. It's the only way to build herd immunity."

"The key is this one farm. We have one opportunity to contain this.-Frank Marshall

While the virus is not transmittable to humans and there are no food safety risks associated with infected animals, the outbreak could be devastating for Alberta's pork industry, Marshall said.

"There is not a lot a person can do when they're battling against this," Marshall said.

"The key is this one farm. We have one opportunity to contain this."

'Something no one wants'

Without a commercial vaccine, biosecurity measures are the best way to contain the virus which spreads through oral-fecal contamination, Marshall said.

Processing plants, sow yards and washing stations are considered high risk for cross-contamination.

"This is where they can cross-traffic, pick it up, spread into their vehicle and take it home," Marshall said. "And eventually, if they don't have decent biosecurity, they can walk onto their farms."

In a statement, the Alberta Pork Producers Development Corp. said it is working closely with the province to investigate the outbreak and urged pork producers to increase biosecurity at their farms.

The first case of PED in Canada was confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in January 2014 on a swine farm in Ontario. While there have been several small PED outbreaks in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I., the fast-spreading virus had not hit western Canadian herds until now.

It's unclear how the virus spread to Alberta. Marshall said the infected farm has been self-quarantined.

"We've been negative up to this moment," he said. "The whole industry has been ramping up their biosecurity to prevent an event such as this."

"This is something no one wants."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca


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