What Is Swine Fever? 38,000 Pigs Killed as Virus Spreads to China

A man wearing a protection suit guards the site where pig bodies are being burned after the animals were culled on August 9 in the village of Tufesti, southern Romania. China has culled 38,000 pigs affected by the virus. Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

China has culled more than 38,000 pigs in a bid to contain an outbreak of African swine fever that has also reared its head in Europe and is threatening international pork supplies.

The cull followed the discovery of the disease in five Chinese provinces, according to the country's ministry of agriculture. The current outbreak dates back to at least 2014, when reports detailed cases in Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Estonia. The first case in China came to light last month in northeast Liaoning province, forcing authorities in the world's largest pig-herding nation to scramble a containment strategy.

The highly contagious virus has continued to spread but is "generally under control," a spokesman for the agriculture ministry told state news, according to the AFP news agency.

Officials have recorded six outbreaks in China across five provinces over the past month, as Anhui province declared 134 hogs had died from African swine fever most recently. Besides Liaoning, Anhui province, Henan province, Jiangsu province and Zhejiang provinces have also been affected and joined the government-ordered cull to contain the spread.

Although not harmful to humans, the disease is deadly to both domesticated pigs and wild boar, causing hemorrhagic fever in the animals, which frequently ends in their death over a matter of days. There is no existing vaccine for the virus, which can travel from animal to animal via ticks or via contaminated food, animal feed and even people who move in close proximity with pig populations. The virus threatens the population of the species internationally and businesses trading in livestock and pork meat.

"I haven't had any business in the past two days because there are too many pigs in the market," a pork trucker in China's pig-producing Henan province who identified himself by the name Ni, told Reuters. "Prices are bad and there is not much demand."

Prior to the outbreak, Ni estimated he used to transport up to 700 pigs a day, but now this figure is down to around 700 a week. Live markets near infected areas and deliveries of livestock that pass through the regions have halted, on the government's orders.

"Costs will go up and it will take much longer to get pigs to the consumption areas," Ni added.

Efforts to curb the spread of the disease are also preoccupying officials in Europe, where Germany has sounded the alarm on the danger free-moving wild boars pose, since they can cross national land borders, as well as swim. Lawmakers in neighboring Denmark backed a move last month to build a $12 million fence on the 42-mile border with Germany, in order to deter an influx of contaminated animals in the Scandinavian country.