Gordon and Jeff Smiley ramped up biosecurity in and around their hog barns when a swine virus broke out on a neighboring farm last year. They hoped to keep the killer at bay.
Their buildings were sprayed with an antiseptic. Workers donned disposable coveralls and boot coverings. Most visitors were banned from the premises. Even their veterinarian started driving two pickup trucks, reserving one to be scrubbed down before arriving at the farm.
The precautions seemed to work. Ten months after one of the nation’s earliest confirmed cases of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus erupted just three miles away, the Smileys’ 7,000 hogs remained virus-free.
Then it hit. Since late February, when the brothers detected the first hint of the fast-spreading virus, they’ve lost 1,000 piglets. Most died within the first few days of birth.
The fatality count has dropped as the virus has dissipated, but the anguish of finding so many dead piglets remains.
“It’s been tough. You’ve got to carry them out in buckets,” said Gordon Smiley, a fourth-generation farmer. “It’s not what you were designed to do.”
The virus has spread to at least 28 states and killed millions of piglets since the first handful of cases were detected in Indiana, Ohio and Iowa in the spring of last year.
Though it poses no food safety risks or danger to humans, the worst strain — which showed up on the Smiley farm — carries a 100 percent mortality rate for piglets.
Finding a vaccine is critical for Indiana, one of the country’s top pork producing states, where the industry contributes about $3 billion a year to the economy, according to agriculture officials. As of late March, the Board of Animal Health reported cases of the virus in 43 of Indiana’s 92 counties, with tens of thousands of piglets lost.
The virus also affects consumers’ wallets: The Chicago of Board Trade reports the price of pork products has jumped more than 45 percent since the beginning of the year.
How it got to Indiana — and the Smiley brothers’ farm — is still anyone’s guess.
“Anything can be contaminated with it,” said Dr. Matt Ackerman, an Indiana swine veterinarian who’s been traveling the country trying to contain the virus. “We’re scrambling every day to find a way to stop it.”
The virus is mostly a mystery to American vets. Milder forms have been found in Europe and Asia in years past, but Ackerman and most of colleagues had never seen it.
In fact, the first U.S. cases were misdiagnosed because research labs that received the earliest virus samples hadn’t seen it. When Ackerman called the Smiley brothers a year ago to warn them of the illness at a neighboring farm, he cautioned, “We don’t know what it is yet, but it’s bad.”
The virus is passed through fecal matter, resembling another family of viruses that have plagued the pork industry in the past. Symptoms include severe vomiting and diarrhea. Sows can get sick, but most recover. Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus hits youngest pigs the hardest, depriving them of the nutrients needed to live.
The Smiley brothers have tried putting an electrolyte solution — akin to Pedialyte for dehydrated infants — into the pigs’ drinking water.
“You get to the point where you can’t do anything but try to keep them warm and dry to reduce the suffering,” said Jeff Smiley. “Now we’re just praying for a vaccine.”
The National Pork Board has poured money — almost $2 million — into the problem. Dr. Paul Sundberg, a board veterinarian and its vice president of science and technology, said research on the virus and a search for a vaccine has been fast-tracked.
“Everybody’s frustrated,” Sundberg said. “We need answers, and we need them fast.”
So far, there’s no apparent link among infected farms, and no one knows how the virus first entered the United States. It could have been as simple as a traveler from China – where a similar strain was found two years ago — bringing the virus back on the bottom of a shoe.
Researchers are also looking at whether the feed supply could be a conduit for the virus, or whether it’s inadvertently spread by trucks that haul hogs to market.
Ackerman is heartened by the slight downturn in the number of infections in recent weeks, in both Indiana and other states. He’s hopeful the trend will continue into the summer because the virus doesn’t thrive as well in hot and dry conditions as it does in cold, damp environments.
But the virus is proving to be confounding. Intense research over the past year has led to better diagnostic testing and stricter bio-security protocols — significant advancements, Sundberg says — but major questions remain.
Two weeks ago, the virus broke out again at the Greenburg-area farm where Ackerman first detected it in Indiana a year ago. No one expected that to happen, having assumed the sows had built up an immunity.
“We know about life and death on farm,” said Gordon Smiley. “That’s just part of it. But this is ugly.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Maureen