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Nation’s farms fight dual virus outbreaks in birds and pigs

Traffic access is restricted Sunday at a poultry farm in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, after an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed at a farm nearby a day earlier. (Yonhap)
Traffic access is restricted Sunday at a poultry farm in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, after an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed at a farm nearby a day earlier. (Yonhap)
On top of the national fight against COVID-19, South Korea is battling a growing specter of dual animal virus outbreaks this winter -- the highly pathogenic avian influenza and African swine fever.

South Korea on Saturday raised its alert for bird flu to the highest level of “serious” after a highly pathogenic bird flu virus strain was found at a duck farm in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province. It was the first outbreak of the virulent strain among farmed poultry in 32 months.

The Agriculture Ministry moved swiftly to block all traffic to and from all poultry farms in Jeongeup for seven days and on Sunday was in the process of culling 292,000 chickens and 100,000 ducks at six farms within a 3-kilometer radius.

There are a total of 2.61 million birds being raised for food at 60 farms within a 10-kilometer radius.

Intertwined with the bird migration season, the officials fear this may be a harbinger of another mass bird flu outbreak in the country. The last outbreak, which spanned from November 2017 to February 2018, resulted in the deaths of 6.54 million chickens, ducks and quails.

The mass culling and public fears then seriously disrupted demand for and supplies of poultry products like chicken and eggs during the outbreak. Korea had to import eggs from nearby countries to meet the demand for “safer” eggs and stabilize egg prices.

While bird flu cases have been discovered in Korea since then, all the cases were found to involve less severe strains. The first highly pathogenic case in wild birds was reported Oct. 25 in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.

After the outbreak in Jeongeup on Saturday, the authorities asked all related agencies and officials to do their best to prevent the highly pathogenic virus from reaching other regions.

“The struggle has become greater for poultry farms and local governments as the avian influenza virus hit them on top of COVID-19,” said ruling Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon in a meeting Saturday.

Agriculture Minister Kim Hyeon-soo said in a briefing Sunday that “the whole country is in a dangerous situation,” as highly pathogenic bird flu cases continue to be discovered from wild migratory birds.

The ministry has strengthened disinfection efforts in migratory bird territories while enforcing stricter virus control measures at poultry farms. Free-range farming has been banned for poultry, and live chicks and ducks are barred from sale at all traditional markets in the country.

Local pig farms are also dealing with virus concerns as they continue their battle against African swine fever, which began in September 2019.

Gyeonggi Province on Tuesday allowed pig farmers to put pigs back in their barns as no additional swine fever cases have been discovered since Oct. 9, 2019. A total of nine cases have been found in the province since the first discovery Sept. 19 last year, and a total of 347,917 pigs from 207 pig farms were culled.

Yet the problem remains, as swine fever continues to be found in wild boars. According to the Environment Ministry, Korea has discovered over 800 swine fever cases in wild boars to date, and the ministry has killed more than 80 percent of the wild boars in Korea since October 2019.

The winter season has been called dangerous in the fight against the swine fever, as wild boars are traveling in search of food ahead of mating season. Their increased movement could cause more swine fever in farmed pigs, officials warn.

To prevent additional cases from reaching pig farms, the Environment Ministry has been installing more fences to prevent wild boars from entering, while carrying out disinfection measures in hazardous areas.

By Ko Jun-tae (