Containing African Swine Fever in the Dominican Republic
Diane DeWitte has dedicated 30 years of her professional career to stopping the spread of disease — but her patients are pigs.
DeWitte is an extension educator at the University of Minnesota who trains farmers and creates educational materials on how to prevent and treat swine diseases. She has reached hundreds of pork producers in the United States with her disease prevention, treatment and contingency plans to secure the North American pork supply.
When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) first detected African Swine Fever (ASF) in pigs in the Dominican Republic in July 2021, the local government knew they would need outside expertise to tackle the challenge. Through Partners of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program, DeWitte was able to quickly assist. ASF is a deadly hemorrhagic disease that kills up to 100% of infected pigs. First discovered in East Africa, ASF has spread among European pigs in the last few decades and recently reached China, the world’s largest pig supplier.
Though an ASF vaccine recently entered clinical trials, it could be years before it reaches the commercial market. Currently, the only containment measures available once the disease enters a country are strict animal quarantine, movement restrictions and slaughtering affected animals.
While ASF is non-transmissible to humans and eating cooked pork from an infected pig is not dangerous, the disease poses a critical threat to pig producer livelihoods and a sustainable pork supply.
Pork is a diet staple around the world — it makes up 35% of animal protein consumed globally. To supplement domestic production, the Dominican Republic imported 57,482 MT of pork from the United States in 2021, up 47% from the year prior. If ASF reaches the United States, it would threaten 11% of the global pork supply and 98% of the Dominican Republic’s pork imports.
In response to requests from the Dominican Republic government (through the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International’s (NCBA CLUSA) Progana Project), Partners of the Americas (POA) recruited DeWitte, a perfect match for this F2F assignment, to deliver trainings in April 2022.
During her assignment, DeWitte delivered strategic trainings to government officials at the General Directorate for Livestock (DIGEGA) and the Ministry of Agriculture on topics including ASF basics, biosecurity best practices and alternative livelihood opportunities. During breakout sessions, participants began discussing a “unified plan” to address ASF in the country.
Additionally, DeWitte conducted trainings with commercial producers and several groups of small “piggy bank” and medium-sized producers. In total, 173 producers, veterinarians, technicians, extensionists and slaughterhouse inspectors attended her trainings.
In an interview with POA, DeWitte discussed her key challenges:
“Many piggy bank farmers do not believe that ASF is a problem — they think it is just another disease. The sentiment among large pig farmers is that eradicating piggy bank farms is the only way to stop ASF.”
She emphasized that delivering biosecurity trainings to pig farmers in the Dominican Republic requires nuance and a deep understanding of their environment.
“Large commercial farmers already practice meticulous biosecurity. Some farms are directly connected to slaughterhouses, which is ideal to minimize disease spread. But there are a lot more piggy bank farmers than commercial farmers — they represent about 80% of swine producers in the Dominican Republic, though they raise a small percentage of all pigs in the country.”
DeWitte’s assistance to the Dominican Republic government and swine industry were the first steps of what will need to be long-term efforts to contain ASF and eradicate it from the island of Hispaniola. But more support is needed — one year after USDA detected ASF on the island, the Dominican Republic government has not yet issued a unified response.
DeWitte stressed that time is of the essence to prevent further damages to pork supply chains and salvage piggy bank farmer livelihoods. Her extensive experience working with swine farmers has informed three important suggestions for how sector stakeholders can support ASF eradication efforts in the Dominican Republic.
Suggestion 1: Clear and consistent communication with value chain stakeholders will help the Dominican Republic government scale ASF eradication efforts
“It is important that first-line strategies for dealing with ASF are the same everywhere. Without containment efforts at scale, disease will continue to spread” said DeWitte.
The Ministry of Agriculture and DIGEGA are key authorities that can develop and disseminate key ASF messages to producers, processors, truckdrivers and veterinarians.
In addition to raising awareness and conducting trainings, the government could consider providing financial support to producers for whom culling infected swine will create economic hardship. In 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture purchased 20,000 pigs to help maintain market supply. More direct support to producers in the form of loans, grants or cash assistance can assist piggy bank farmers in making the transition to alternative livelihoods while they clear their farms of active disease.
Suggestion 2: Biosecurity education can slow the current ASF outbreak and prevent the spread of future livestock diseases
A key channel through which ASF spreads is contaminated vehicles and equipment traveling across the country from farms to butchers and retailers. ASF is also spread through pig-to-pig contact when groups of piggy bank farmers share a neighborhood boar to reproduce with their sows.
The Ministry of Agriculture and DIGEGA could support a project to organize associations of piggy bank farmers to collectively purchase sows and boars to live on one isolated farm, while they raise piglets separately on another.
“This strategy could slow disease spread and mirrors what commercial swine farmers in the U.S. are already doing,” DeWitte said.
Additionally, the government could support the construction of public truck washes to disinfect livestock-hauling vehicles before they travel across the country. Not only would this slow ASF spread, but it could help cement truck washing as a best practice to prevent all kinds of livestock diseases.
Suggestion 3: International cooperation is necessary to stop ASF spread across borders
In addition to domestic containment efforts, international cooperation is a powerful tool for monitoring and preventing ASF spread across borders, protecting the global pork supply. USDA APHIS’ Plum Island Animal Disease Center first confirmed the presence of ASF last year and has already assisted both the Dominican Republic and Haiti with increasing laboratory operations, testing and biosecurity procedures.
Existing international agricultural assistance projects, like F2F and Progana, can also tap into their existing networks to deliver training to value chain stakeholders. POA has 52 years of experience implementing projects in the Dominican Republic, in addition to an extensive network of agricultural experts who have served as F2F volunteers. These experts have provided technical assistance to stakeholders in agricultural value chains across the Dominican Republic, including the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Environmental Institute, the Dominican Agricultural Research Institute and dozens of producer groups farming livestock, cacao, bananas and honey.
As global food prices and inflation continue to soar in 2022, it is more important than ever to safeguard the global pork supply. Supporting farmers to make the transition to alternative livelihoods and closely monitor their livestock’s health will pay dividends in securing both the Dominican Republic and U.S. pig industries and maintaining food prices for Dominican Republic consumers. But government officials must act swiftly to ensure ASF does not spread from the island of Hispaniola.
“Time is of the essence,” DeWitte repeated in her interview. “We do not want this in the U.S.”