Pigs (Aujesky's Disease)

– in the House of Commons at 2:23 am on 23 July 1979.

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Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacGregor.]

6.3 a.m.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer , Eye

At this early hour I draw to the House's attention a problem that is afflicting my constituency, namely, the considerable increase in Aujesky's disease among pigs. It may be thought that this is a matter that will affect only those who produce pigs, but in a constituency like mine, where a large proportion of the pork and bacon of this country is produced, the damage that this disease can cause to the pig herd will not only affect farming constituents but will result in major damage to housewives and those wishing to eat the products of the Eye constituency.

Pseudo-rabies, which is the word I prefer to the curious name of an otherwise unknown Viennese doctor, threatens every family that buys pork or enjoys bacon. In the middle of my constituency, in the so-called Rishangles triangle, Aujesky's disease has become a major problem. It is concentrated there, but there are also outbreaks at the moment in Humberside and in Avon. I believe that it is right for us to consider this matter with great seriousness, if only because of the considerable increase in the incidence of the disease. It has reached epidemic proportions in Holland, France, Belgium and the United States of America.

In each case, there were very few incidents of the disease. Year by year, a small number of outbreaks would be reported, and it was almost by surprise that suddenly the disease jumped from the small number of outbreaks to become a major epidemic. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept from me that it is not reasonable to suggest that we can dismiss the problem of Aujesky's disease merely by saying that we do not have many outbreaks so far. Already, in fact in the first seven months of this year, we are only two outbreaks short of the largest number that Britain has known in the past. The pattern of the disease is becoming suspiciously like the pattern experienced in other countries where the warning signs were ignored and where now pseudo-rabies is endemic.

The reason why the disease is so dangerous is its effect on the pigs themselves. Up to 80 per cent. of small pigs die when they contract the disease. The sows abort and produce stillborn pigs, and the disease erupts again and again. It is not the most unpleasant disease to which pigs are heir, but it can spread to other animals. Cows can get it, and there is evidence that the strain becomes more virulent. It is now clearly able to be passed from cow to cow and then back into the pig herd.

In case we underestimate the effect of the disease, it is worth saying how particularly unpleasant it is when cattle catch it. It begins with persistent licking, rubbing and scratching of parts of the hind quarters, and suddenly this becomes more and more intense until the area becomes bald and then bleeds because the itching is so considerable. Then bellowing, salivation and stamping take place as for 24 hours the animal becomes more and more distressed until finally it is unable to rise and paralysis sets in. Death preceded by convulsions will be another 12 or 24 hours away.

This situation is one which none of us would like to see extended, and I am sure that there are many who are not particularly concerned with the problems of agriculture who must understand that this is a disease which can be caught by dogs and cats and that, if they get it, they, too, are affected very seriously. They exhibit the same signs of intense irritation, the moaning, the groaning and the screams which are observed.

That is why I hope that I shall be allowed to use the expression "pseudo-rabies". I know that it is not a favourite word in the Ministry, because it reminds us of a specific problem which is that it is a disease which, if it were to become endemic, would make it increasingly difficult to enforce our rabies laws.

We are comparing ourselves with other nations which already have rabies and are therefore perhaps not so subject to the problem which I wish to highlight. Those are nations where, because of the presence of rabies, the fact that occasionally dogs and cats catch pseudo-rabies is not so dangerous.

We are concerned to keep out rabies and we must be careful not to allow a disease which mimics it to take more widespread hold. If dogs caught pseudo-rabies, it would be some time before laboratory tests showed that it was this relatively less dangerous disease which, apart from a few examples in the Far East, has not been known to have been passed on to men. If we do not face this issue now, we may find it more difficult in future to protect the nation from rabies itself and one of two dangers will arise. First, a rabies scare may be caused by a dog with this disease. Second, we may ignore real rabies, thinking that it is merely one of the side effects of the continued march of pseudo-rabies in our pig herd.

I sought this debate primarily because of the danger to our pig herd. The cost will be considerable. In 1977, Aujesky's disease cost the United States $25 million. Holland estimates that it lost £3 million in the first half of 1976 because of the way in which what seemed a relatively unimportant disease suddenly erupted into an epidemic.

There are three dangerous "Es" involved. The first is escalation. It is no good saying that, because the danger is not as widespread as in France, Belgium and Holland, we can wait. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the reply which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton), who, like my other neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), is concerned with me in this matter. The Minister said that, after the disease had been made unviable, there would be all sorts of data from serological surveys and that, before the end of the year, the Government would be able to determine the appropriate action. But at the end of the year, I believe, the Government will be in no position to decide what will be appropriate. The disease may have taken such hold that we shall be in the same position as our competitors in Holland.

The second danger is the result of that escalation, that the disease may become endemic, dashing the hopes of many of our best breeders. Already one of the major breeders in Suffolk whose products are sent throughout the world and who bears perhaps the best-known name in the pig industry has had three outbreaks in his herds. That means considerable damage not only to him but to the British breeding stock.

The third dangerous "E" is the danger of extension. Once the disease has become endemic, we may follow the pattern of the United States, where the disease has extended into more and more virulent strains.

The House will not wish at this hour to hear a detailed description of what the disease may do when it reaches the virulent stage that it has reached in some parts of the world. However, the matter is now so serious that the Government must act, and act quickly. Ideally they should adopt a national eradication policy, with slaughter and full compensation for affected herds.

I accept that within the constraints of Government spending, which I support,—the sensible policies to trim our coat according to our cloth—the ideal method is too expensive. That is why I suggest that we should accept the alternative, compromise solution. There should be a local designation of infected areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) and for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) will agree that the most important areas are in Suffolk, Humberside and, perhaps, Avon. Those areas should be designated as infected areas. On notification, the herd should be tested and the reactors slaughtered.

There would have to be a compensation scheme for the slaughtered reactors and the strictest prohibition of movement. A perusal of the work of Basinger or of anyone else who has studied the disease leads one to believe that we know too little about it. It is difficult to see how one can cut into the cycle of pseudo-rabies. The best we can do is to stop movement. That is the only way, because there must be direct contact for the disease to spread.

If we can concentrate the disease in those areas which are unlucky enough to be involved—the Rishangles triangle, the Humberside and Avon regions—we can do something to avoid the catastrophe that would occur if the disease were allowed to spread.

This would be a low-cost scheme. If the Minister asked what would be given up to pay for such a scheme, I should say that the industry would be prepared to reconsider the special subsidies for pigs in Northern Ireland. Perhaps there is a possibility of saving the cost of such a scheme through those subsidies. If the Minister were to suggest a scheme to eradicate the disease, he could go to the industry—even in its present parlous state—and find some support and help towards the cost. If action is not taken, the disease will become endemic. Rabies will be harder to stop. Britain will lose large sums. The pig industry, which is already depressed, will take another and severe loss. We shall lose a major export in our breeding stock and the housewife will pay more for her pork and bacon.

Action should be taken quickly. If the Minister cannot give me assurances, I hope that he will promise to examine the problem and come to the aid of my constituents who are determined to continue to serve the housewife by producing the highest-quality pork and bacon in the world.

6.20 a.m.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) for raising this matter, and I think that it is some measure of the importance which both he and I attach to it that we are here at the ungodly hour of 6.20 in the morning to debate the issue. From what my hon. Friend said, his concern is clear, and I hope that I can convince him that the Government share his concern and have already taken action to deal with the situation.

Perhaps I might start by putting the subject into perspective and filling in a little of the background. The disease takes its name from Dr. Aujesky of Hungary, who first recognised it in 1902. It was first seen in the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland in 1939 and in England in 1961, although I am happy to say that it has never been identified in Scotland. It is a viral disease and the natural host is the pig, but other species can become infected, invariably with fatal results.

In pigs the principal effects of the disease are deaths in piglets and abortions in sows, though in this country it does not appear to cause harm in fattening herds. Usually it is immediately apparent when the disease has struck, but identifying it from other diseases needs laboratory tests. It appears that occasionally the infection can exist in a herd without showing any obvious symptoms, and that is one of the reasons for the surveys which we are undertaking, which I shall describe later.

I regret that, in giving a title to his debate, my hon. Friend has used the term pseudo-rabies, since this is both false and misleading. Aujesky's disease belongs to an entirely different group of viruses from that of rabies and the two conditions have few similarities. The Ministry's records show that since 1967 there have been only five cases of Aujesky's disease in hunt kennels and these were directly due to the feeding of infected pig carcases, while some five farm dogs and a number of farm cats have succumbed to the disease on premises where the pigs were infected. There has been no other evidence of the disease in dogs and cats, and pet owners have no cause for alarm.

Cattle, apparently, can contract the disease, and they invariably die very rapidly, within about two days. They are not important in spreading the disease and they do not produce viruses to pass on. There has been only one case of Aujesky's disease in cattle in Great Britain in the past 10 years.

As my hon. Friend has suggested, the simplest course would be to adopt a slaughter policy for infected herds, which, one hopes, would eradicate the disease from the country. I understand why he advocates this and why there are those in the pig industry who would wish us to do the same. However, the House will appreciate that it would be an extremely costly undertaking, and it is right that the most careful consideration be given before we embark on such a programme. If we adopted that policy, we should be the first country in the world to do so, and we should have to be sure that we knew enough about the prevalence and nature of the disease, how it spreads and how it persisted in pig herds to ensure that we should be successful.

Another course would be to continue with the existing policy under which the control of the disease is left to the industry, helped by veterinary advice and assistance with tests. This policy has meant that several owners have been able to eradicate the disease from their herds and have subsequently remained free from infection. I believe that a similar policy is having success in Denmark.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer , Eye

I am sure that that is helpful where owners eradicate the disease and then find themselves free, but will my hon. Friend agree that there have been a number of cases—two of the most important having been in my constituency—where after most stringent eradication measures the disease has been found to return to the herds, in one case within six months and in another within two years? In those circumstances, is it not necessary to have a wider scheme than the course which we pursue at present, which is merely to leave it to the individual owner to make the decisions for himself, and his neighbours may well find reinfection?

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

If my hon. Friend will bear with me a moment or two, I shall deal with that and make some suggestions. He will recall that I was dealing with the course where the owner himself should deal with the matter, helped by veterinary advice, and assistance with tests.

I recognise, however, that there are one or two areas in the country where there are concentrations of infected herds and action by individual farmers may not be so effective.

The third course open is vaccination. My veterinary officers are considering the pros and cons of such a policy and have visited other countries to assess the quality of vaccine production and the protection that it offers. I should emphasise, however, that no plans have been formulated to introduce a vaccination policy, but it is surely right that this course should be properly considered and evaluated. I am aware of some apprehension that vaccines might mask the disease and allow greater dissemination which would ultimately impede the eradication of the disease, but I do not necessarily share these views, although I assure the House that they will be fully considered before the Government reach a decision.

In a number of instances in recent months, outbreaks of the disease have given rise to considerable and wide concern. The reintroduction of the disease into a well-known herd where the owner had followed the veterinary service's advice was one such case and another was where an elite herd of Large White pigs with a substantial trade in breeding animals in this country and Europe suffered similarly. I think that that is probably the herd to which my hon. Friend was referring. I have the deepest sympathy for these and other owners of infected herds, not only because of the financial losses which they have suffered but because of the years of hard work which have been wiped out.

In spite of these unfortunate outbreaks, at present the disease does not look to be "taking off" in the way that it has in other countries, especially Holland.

It is important that I introduce a few statistics to give some background to the Government's point of view. Since 1961, when the disease was first known to exist in Great Britain, the highest number of outbreaks in any year was 16, in 1977. There were nine in 1978 and so far this year there have been 11. Since 1961 there have been something over a total of 100 outbreaks. It might help to put the matter in proportion if we compare these figures with Holland, where, for a decade or more before the disease "exploded", the rate of outbreaks was between 200 and 300 a year, perhaps because the disease there was of a more virulent form.

The Government fully recognise that there is no room for complacency. We know that there is a residual infection in some of the herds where the disease has been reported in the past, and it is to be expected that it is present in some other herds where it has not been diagnosed or reported.

For these reasons, as the Government announced the other day, it has been decided to make the disease notifiable. By this order, which will cover both new outbreaks and those which have continued to smoulder, we shall be able to add to the information which we already possess, as a result of the surveillance undertaken on a continuing basis over the years by the veterinary service. I am bound to say that, given the concern of the industry, I regret that our predeces- sors did not seek to make the disease notifiable, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate the rapid response by the new Government when the problem was placed before my right hon. Friend. We hope that the new arrangements will produce new and prompt information about the way that the disease is moving.

My hon. Friend will also be pleased to note that extensive surveys are to be carried out by the veterinary service during the remainder of this year. We shall be sampling representative herds from the whole of the country and examining in somewhat greater detail certain parts of the pig population. As time is pressing, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to my informing him by letter of the precise particulars. In all, the testing programme will cover some 25,000 pigs from 2,500 herds. The results will be available on a month-by-month basis, and this major commitment of manpower will mean that by the end of the year we shall be well placed to take a much more comprehensive view.

For that reason, my hon. Friend's suggestion about restricted areas would be premature. Without the information from the survey, we might, for example, designate a restricted area that did not cover a number of herds that should have been included. It is to gain such information that we are proceeding as I have described.

My hon. Friend is concerned about a number of more specific points, and I shall reply to some of these. I have already referred to the important breeding herd where the disease has occurred in his constituency and about which he has written to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Important as that is, that outbreak does not fundamentally affect the situation. The overal picture presented by the disease in this country is not altered.

My hon. Friend has expressed disquiet that we shall follow Holland, Belgium and France in experiencing a flare-up of the disease, and that because of our geographical situation we are in a favourable situation to prevent the disease from becoming endemic. The figures that I have given about the general incidence of the disease, and the distinction to be drawn between the situation in Holland and here, will, I hope have provided some reassurance.

Another argument which has been adduced is that if we eradicated the disease our breeding stock would be enhanced in value for export. All I would say at this stage is that it is difficult to judge whether, at some future date, the value of our breeding stock would be significantly enhanced by an eradication policy, or whether the same benefit and assurance could not be derived more cheaply by testing individual animals to be exported. Aujesky's disease is widespread throughout Europe and most of the world and is not a factor of great significance in international trade.

Having made those points, I should like to emphasise once again that the Government are extremely concerned about this issue and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that we have responded sensibly to the points that he and other hon. Members have made to us about the situation. The harsh realities of animal diseases and their economic costs will always be with the industry, as I am sure he recognises. When using public money for eradication schemes, the Government must be absolutely certain that the approach is both correct and cost-effective, and without the in- formation which we are now seeking no such decision could be taken.

I emphasise once again our great concern about this matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the actions we have taken, although not going as far as he would wish, demonstrate quite clearly that we are not prepared to let this matter rest and will, of course, remain open-minded about our ultimate conclusions.

My hon. Friend and his constituents would, I am sure, be rightly critical of us if we were to spend taxpayers' money in a way that did not seem to give good value, although of course this sort of crude equation has to be tempered with common sense and compassion in all such matters of animal health. I hope that he will feel that our substantial response shows how seriously we have taken this matter, and within a few months, certainly by the end of the year, we shall be much better placed to assess the situation. The Government are keen to do everything possible to help the industry in its various problems. This one is no exception.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Seven o'clock a.m.