Pacific governments are being advised to respond to the threat of another deadly virus in the region, African swine fever.
Humans cannot contract the porcine disease but it poses a risk to human health in the Pacific, where pigs are an important food source and a cultural commodity.
First identified in Kenya in 1907, African swine fever reemerged in Europe in 2007. It reached China in 2018 where it's estimated more than 200 million pigs died of the disease or were culled.
Outbreaks have since been reported across Asia, including in Timor Leste and Indonesia. Last month it was detected in Papua New Guinea.
Swine Fever reaches Pacific
PNG had been on alert for African swine fever since December. Then in February about 300 pigs died in Mendi, capital of the Southern Highlands province. Samples sent to Australia for testing came back positive and on 29 March PNG publicly confirmed the outbreak.
In response, the government declared Southern Highlands and the neighbouring provinces of Enga and Hela disease areas. Agriculture minister John Simon called for people in the provinces not to move pigs or pig meat out of their districts but he also urged more drastic action.
"We are encouraging those in those three provinces to start slaughtering their pigs," Mr Simon said.
Meanwhile, the virus appears to have spread from Mendi's Munihu district to the Upper Mendi and Nippa districts, where as many as 1500 pigs are reported to have died.
To contain the disease, a 15-member team from PNG's National Agriculture Quarantine and Inspection Authority (NAQIA) arrived in Mendi last Wednesday on a charter flight from Port Moresby.
NAQIA managing director Joel Alu told Loop PNG the national Covid-19 lockdown and the suspension of domestic flights prevented his team from being deployed within 24 hours of the declaration.
After establishing a command base in Mendi, the team would survey affected areas and implement containment and eradication plans, Mr Alu said.
The outbreak would have a negative social impact, according to police commissioner David Manning.
"I am aware that this has the potential of creating a lot of issues for people in the highlands where pigs play a significant role in the society," Mr Manning said.
Deputy chair of the Body of Christ Church pastor Wilson Michael explained to the Post Courier that highlands societies were based on the tradition of pig rearing.
"Pigs mean everything to highlanders and I can't have a marriage, resolve a dispute or do anything else without pigs in the highlands."
Pacific governments take action
With a cause of contagion being pigs eating infected pork products, Samoa this week banned pork imports from China and 25 other swine fever affected countries.
Infected pork products are not harmful to humans if consumed but the virus may remain active in the products for up to a year.
Sustainable agriculture team leader at the Pacific Community (SPC) Gibson Susumu said the bans were consistent with advice the SPC was giving to Pacific governments.
"To start limiting or restricting imports from these countries with African Swine Fever," Mr Susumu said.
"Biosecurity services should start restricting pork imports from all the affected countries."
To help communities understand the threat, Mr Susumu said the SPC wanted to develop awareness material translated into different languages that "can be disseminated as widely as possible".
"Some pigs may be already affected but you wont see the symptoms for up to 10 14 days, some can be up to 21 days.
"That's the greatest threat, even if the virus is already there, countries wont be able to detect it until it is widely spreading."
Government officers would therefore be given tools and training, he said.
"The first support we are looking at is procuring and distributing some of these rapid diagnostic kits that both bio-security and animal health officers can use. The field diagnostic kits they can use when they are doing their surveillance."
But with the region already on alert for Covid-19, Mr Susumu acknowledged it would be challenging for some Pacific governments to respond to the threat of African swine fever.
"We are trying to consult countries on their Covid plans and it seems most of the agriculture ministries are already quite busy trying to put together preparedness and response plans for Covid 19.
"It is a concern for us that a lot of these efforts might be drawing attention away from this other big risk that the region is already facing, African swine fever."
The value of pigs in Pacific nations, however, may spur governments into action.
"Pigs are a very important animal in the culture, traditions and social structures in the Pacific," Mr Susumu said.
"In most Pacific countries we say a feast is not really a feast without the pork."