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Spreading swine fever troubles India's Christian-majority region

Poor farmers already struggling with Covid-19 face 'colossal' threat to their livelihoods

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: May 08, 2020 03:45 AM GMT

Updated: May 08, 2020 08:17 AM GMT

Spreading swine fever troubles India's Christian-majority region

An Indian man cooks pork and displays crabs during a Mongolian food festival in Guwahati, Assam state's business capital, in this December 2017 file photo. (Photo: Biju Boro/ AFP)

An outbreak of African swine fever has killed thousands of pigs on the farms of Assam state, hitting the rural economy and taking pork off the menu in the Christian stronghold areas of northeastern India.

The Assam government banned the sale and distribution of pork in the state from the last week of April after pigs began to die. Within a fortnight, at least 3,000 pigs had died of fever in the state's six districts.

The fever caused by a virus affects mostly pigs and has a high mortality rate. No vaccine or cure has been developed for it.

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Swine fever is different from swine flu, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. Swine flu can spread from animals to humans, but swine fever does not and therefore poses no threat to public health, it said.

However, governments have advised precaution in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was reportedly caused by a zoonotic coronavirus that infected humans after originating at an animal market in China.

The Indian government's plan to cull pigs to check the spread of the disease threatens to impoverish hundreds of villagers who depend on pig farming for a living.

"The federal government has informed us that it is the first instance of the disease in the country," Atul Bora, Assam's animal husbandry and veterinary minister, told media on May 3.

African swine fever, affecting both domestic and wild pigs, can spread via live or dead pigs and pork products, according to the World Organization for Animal Health.

Its transmission can also occur via contaminated feed and objects such as shoes, clothes, vehicles, knives and other equipment. 

Bora said the mortality rate of the infection is "almost 100 percent. So we are discussing with experts on ways to save uninfected pigs without culling them."

Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil of Bongaigaon Diocese in Assam told UCA News that the swine fever has been "a big blow to the rural economy of Assam and other northeastern states."

Pork is a major delicacy in the seven northeast states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Tribal Christians dominate in four states — Arunachal Pradesh Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.

Several of these states have banned pork sales, reports said.

The bans on pork sales have already affected villagers. "We are not sure of the extent of damages and financial losses as we cannot reach out to them because of the lockdown," Bishop Pulloppillil said.

Indian has been under a Covid-19 lockdown since March 25 that has shut down all modes of transport. The lockdown is due to end on May 17.

"The poor farmers who are already bearing the brunt of Covid-19 will suffer further. Almost every family in the villages rears pigs for their livelihood," the bishop said.

A spokesman for the North East Progressive Pig Farmers Association said the effect of the bans on pork sales was "colossal to the economy."

In one farm, 45 pigs died within 10 days. The virus can spread to other farms through birds and even by vehicles transporting fodder and meat, threatening its spread across the county.

A breeding pig costs US$400-550. "If the government resorts to mass culling, the farmers will be left with nothing," the spokesman said.

Allen Brooks, spokesman for the Assam Christian Forum, said the swine "fever could spell catastrophe among the poor people" in the northeast if governments fail to check it.

Pigs play a critical role in some indigenous cultures in the region, Brooks told UCA News. "A culture of giving two to three pigs in marriages, especially the groom to the bride, is still prevalent," he said.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on May 4 asked officials to draw a roadmap to deal with the disease. He also asked for "threat-mapping" and containment measures.

The government will announce a bailout package to help affected farmers, he said.

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