National Animal Disease CenterFrom Des Moines Register staff and news services –

The National Animal Disease Center in Ames is targeting a new disease that’s killed an estimated 8 million pigs over the past year.

“We tend to work on ‘David Letterman’s Top 10 diseases of livestock,’ but there’s more than 10 and never enough resources to tackle them all as you like to,” said Marcus Kehrli, the director of the National Animal Disease Center.

On Friday, officials gave U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin a tour of the center, which is made up of three individual organizations, sits on 520 acres and is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kehrli said the work done in Ames represents about half of the animal research the USDA does in the nation.

Recently, some of the center’s work has centered on finding a cure for the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, a disease that is mostly fatal for baby pigs.

Vilsack said the virus is creating losses for producers, whittling supplies for packers, and driving prices higher for consumers.

The government announced plans this week to pump about $30 million into helping fight the virus.

Here are three things Iowans should know about the disease:

What is PED?

“It’s a disease that when it infects young baby pigs when they are still nursing their mother, it has a very high mortality rate,” Kehrli said. “If they get infected in the first week or so of life it has virtually a 100 percent mortality rate.”

The porcine epidemic diarrhea virus was first noticed in the 1960s in Europe, but only came to the U.S. early last year, Kehrli said.

The virus poses no threat to other animals or humans. And “there’s not any issue in terms of the safety of pork products,” Vilsack said. “You can consume a pork chop and have no hesitation about doing that.”

What work has to be done?

It’s taken scientists over a year to grow the virus, a necessary step toward creating a vaccine.

“You have to understand the biology of the virus, how it causes disease in the animal, how it’s transmitted, and then you focus on how you’re going to go ahead and make a vaccine,” Kehrli said.

“If there was going to be a quick vaccine that was going to really help the farmers, it probably would have been delivered,” he said. “We recognize that there is a real challenge.”

Harrisvaccines, also based in Ames, has created a vaccine that is used to boost sow immunity so that it can be passed onto piglets.

How does this affect Iowa and consumers?

Fewer pigs mean fewer products in grocery stores and rising prices, making pork less affordable to consumers.

“That’s unfortunate. We want people to have diversity, we want them to have choice in the grocery store,” he said.

Iowa’s jobs also could be affected.

“The fact is our hog industry in the state is an important part of our industry, an important part of our economy,” Vilsack said. “To the extent there are fewer hogs to process, it means there will be fewer hours worked in these processing facilities, (and) that could affect and impact jobs and wages.”

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