Since it was first detected on a farm in Ohio last may, a killer virus of mysterious origin has been been spreading unabated on pig farms throughout the U.S., leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Experts say that so far as many as 7 million animals have perished from the virus, known as PEDv.
All told, that accounts for more 10 percent of the nation's entire pig population.
The highly contagious disease, which has now spread to pigs across 30 states and Canada, attacks a pig's small intestines, making it impossible for the infected animals to absorb vital nutrients or water. Young pigs are especially vulnerable; the virus is virtually 100 percent fatal in pigs under three weeks old.
While the virus poses no threat to humans, pig farmers have been reeling from the losses, which have driven pork prices up to record highs.
"If you have four weeks of mortality in a PEDv break, that's pretty devastating to the financial well-being of that operation," said hog farmer Greg Boerboom, to Reuters. "I think most producers are scared. They stay up at night."
Outbreaks of PEDv have occurred in Europe, China, Japan, and Korea, though no one can say how it may have arrived to the U.S.. Researchers suspect that the disease has been able to spread so rapidly from pig to pig through contact with manure or infected feed, which is oftentimes contains pig-blood byproducts.
To make matters worse, no one has been able to figure out how to stop it. Farmers have begun taking sanitation measures to slow the spread; Meanwhile the National Pork Board has so far invested $1.1 million in research to find a vaccine.
Ultimately, the source of such farm-borne diseases may be the factory farm industry itself. A to a 2008 report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production warned that the rise of factory farming worldwide poses a serious threat to both livestock and humans, allowing for the rapid dissemination of infectious diseases that could make the leap to people.
Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, says more than more than 30 new human pathogens have been discovered in the last three decades, and many of those originated from animals on farms -- not unlike the deadly PEDv -- and it threatens us all.
"Factory farms represent the most significant change in the lives of animals in 10,000 years," Greger concludes. "This is not how animals were supposed to live."