TOKYO -- Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has decided to vaccinate pigs in some parts of the country amid a swine fever outbreak that began a year ago and has since spread across several prefectures.
The ministry has been trying to contain the virus by slaughtering infected pigs. But seeing no end in sight and coming under increasing pressure from pig farmers to brandish a stronger weapon, the ministry has settled on a vaccination program.
Japan began taking measures to eliminate swine fever during the mid-1990s, conducting vaccinations until 2006. At that point, considering that there had been no outbreaks since 1992, the government decided it would be in farmers' best interest to stop the program due to an international rule that states vaccinated animals cannot be considered virus-free.
The rule by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, was seen as a roadblock to exports.
The ministry is now working out the details of the new vaccination program.
The swine fever virus attacks pigs and wild boars but not humans, even if meat from an infected animal is consumed.
At farms in prefectures like Gifu, in central Japan, where the outbreak is widespread, the ministry will likely be aggressive with the vaccinations.
But the ministry will limit the vaccinations to certain regions, establishing "clean" areas that will retain swine fever-free status. This could possibly allow Japan to maintain export levels, depending on negotiations with trade partners.
Although the use of vaccines will suppress the onset of the disease, it will make it harder to distinguish the status of infection. Antibodies produced by vaccinated pigs are difficult to differentiate from antibodies found in infected animals.
The virus that Japan is fighting differs from the African swine flu virus that has ravaged China and from there has crept into Southeast Asia, North Korea and now South Korea.
This week, South Korea raised its animal disease alert to the highest level after discovering its first outbreak of African swine fever at a pig farm in Paju, near the border with North Korea, which announced its first outbreak in May.
On Tuesday, after the announcement in South Korea, the wholesale price for pork jumped to around 5,800 won ($4.88) per kilogram, an increase of more than 30% from the day before.
African swine fever is also highly contagious and almost 100% fatal to pigs. It can be transmitted by ticks and indirect contact with other pigs and wild boar. There is no vaccine. It does not affect humans.
China last year reported East Asia's first outbreak of the disease. It has since destroyed millions of animals and caused pork prices to skyrocket. In August, the price of pork in China soared 46.7%, after gaining 27% in July.
Vietnam and the Philippines are among the Southeast Asian nations that have been hit hard by African swine fever.
Japan has been able to prevent African swine fever outbreaks so far but remains on high alert. That is not to say the nation has been left untouched. Cases have been discovered. In April, the ministry reported that tourists had brought infected sausages into the country from China.
Japan has also been fortunate as far as pork prices go. The government imposes a "gate price" system that shields domestic pig farmers from cheaper imports. It sets a standard price of 546.53 yen ($4.89) per kilogram for imported pork and imposes variable tariffs, depending on the actual import price. This stabilizes pork prices in Japan, which has yet to experience any volatility.
Jada Nagumo, Nikkei staff writer, contributed to this article.