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Near-100% Fatality Rate – The Most Devastating Viral Disease You Have Never Heard Of

The global outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) presents a critical challenge, threatening swine populations, food security, and socio-ecological systems, particularly in vulnerable communities. Urgent action and a shift in global priorities are essential to address the underrecognized impacts of ASF on global health and conservation. Credit: Graham Usher

African Swine Fever is causing widespread devastation in the forests and communities of Borneo.

A virulent and highly infectious virusA virus is a tiny infectious agent that is not considered a living organism. It consists of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, that is surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid. Some viruses also have an outer envelope made up of lipids that surrounds the capsid. Viruses can infect a wide range of organisms, including humans, animals, plants, and even bacteria. They rely on host cells to replicate and multiply, hijacking the cell's machinery to make copies of themselves. This process can cause damage to the host cell and lead to various diseases, ranging from mild to severe. Common viral infections include the flu, colds, HIV, and COVID-19. Vaccines and antiviral medications can help prevent and treat viral infections.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>virus is rapidly spreading among domestic and wild pig populations globally, causing widespread devastation in Asia, Europe, and Africa. With a fatality rate approaching 100%, this outbreak poses significant threats to food security, ecosystems, and the livelihoods and cultural practices of millions. African Swine Fever (ASF) is probably the most devastating viral disease you have never heard of.

Cultural practices centuries-old are at risk of extinction. Diets are dramatically shifting, placing an unsustainable burden on an already strained socio-ecological environment. Low- and lower-middle-income countries are bearing the brunt of this catastrophic pandemic, but few seem to care beyond the protection of domestic pork production. Would it be the same if experts were to predict that not a single American household would celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey in 2024?

Underestimated Socio-Ecological Disaster

A recent letter in the journal Science warns that this socio-ecological disaster is currently overlooked and receiving insufficient attention. Professor Erik Meijaard, the letter’s lead author and former chair of the IUCN Wild Pigs Specialist Group, a global pig conservation group, commented that “ASF has devastated pig populations in Asia since 2018, but the impacts are especially significant on the island of Borneo. ASF has led to local population crashes of bearded pigs, once the most numerous large mammal speciesA species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is important in biology as it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted one is the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in nature. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>species on the island, of up to 100%.” Meijaard thinks that this decline may render the species Critically Endangered, an international conservation status verging on extinction.

Pig Hunt

Pig hunt. Credit: David Hisser

Bearded pigs play an essential role in ecosystem maintenance and socio-cultural practices. As a major seed predator, the once numerous pigs played an important role in steering ecological processes in Borneo’s tropical forest. Local hunting studies indicate that bearded pigs constituted up to 81% of hunted wildlife weight in some villages, while Malaysian Sarawak once harvested up to a million bearded pigs each year. How can the loss of such an integral species be overlooked? Especially when there is no evidence indicating that wild pig populations in Borneo, or other Southeast Asian islands can fully recover.

The current letter calls for urgent research and interventions, with the participation of rural communities, focusing on preventing the spread of African swine fever to other regions where people fundamentally depend on pigs, such as the island of New Guinea, where the loss of pigs could mean social collapse. The indigenous people of these lands have such close ties to pigs, that tribeswomen have been known to nurse piglets as their own.

Ongoing clinical trials for the development of an effective vaccine against ASF are showing positive results. Professor Benoit Goossens of Cardiff University, one of the co-authors, however, pointed out that this is mostly relevant for domestic pigs: “Vaccinating wild pigs would require a whole different setup, such as oral vaccination with baits, which is far from being ready. Also, baiting wild pigs across Borneo would be logistically hugely complex and expensive to implement,” he commented.

Man with Pig

Man with pig. Credit: David Hisser

Need for Global Reevaluation

Something needs to be done urgently. Failing to acknowledge the socio-economic significance of the virus in low-income demographics, such as the indigenous tribes of Borneo, could result in the irreversible loss of species and the ecosystems, cultures, livelihoods, and communities they support.

Raising the profile of neglected tropical diseases is a longstanding priority of global health governing bodies. However, the continued pressure that we exert on the natural world threatens human lives in ways that go beyond zoonotic transmission of disease. Recognizing that a virus which cannot infect humans, in its present state, could have catastrophic consequences for millions of people, especially those whose relationship with nature is profound and all-encompassing, necessitates a fundamental shift in global priorities. While such a change requires a massive overhaul of existing systems, it could all begin with acknowledging ASF and providing the virus and the communities it impacts with the attention it deserves.

Reference: “Pig virus imperils food security in Borneo” by Erik Meijaard, Andi Erman, Marc Ancrenaz and Benoit Goossens, 18 January 2024, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adn3857

Source: SciTechDaily