We are dealing with a disease unknown to us, all the more that measures must be undertaken.
-Philippines BFAR Aquatic Resources Director Asis G. Perez
I spent a month last summer as an embedded journalist with a scientific expedition that travelled to Indonesia to study a virus affecting a reef fish. My experience with viruses prior to that was probably not that different than most people’s. I’d read The Andromeda Strain, seen “Outbreak” and remember a Time or Newsweek cover in the grocery store checkout with alarmist headlines and a picture of someone wearing a surgical mask. Sure I’d been pricked and poked before assignments to far-flung parts of the developing world to stave off viruses, and I have a rudimentary understanding of virology from AP Bio class in high school, but it hadn’t really sunk in until last summer’s scientific expedition.
If you want to really think hard about viruses, try eating at warungs in Indonesia with a virologist (warungs are the small family-owned cafes that provide the only real eating option for tourists in the more remote parts of the Country). Beyond thinking more sincerely about food preparation while enjoying my water buffalo tendon soup, I developed a very healthy respect for the implications of viruses on everything from human health to trade in animals that can carry various viruses. Since that trip, I have been particularly attuned to diseases resulting from viruses, especially in fishes and other marine life important to trade.
As such, I have been following the news on early mortality syndrome (EMS) in shrimp farming operations and how the disease is potentially being spread through the trade in certain shrimp species. While the most recent science on EMS seems to suggest a bacterial agent (not a viral one), the potential negative economic (not to mention ecosystem) impact of EMS is daunting. In the last week we have seen several of the “big players” in the global shrimp industry take action, including, most recently, the Philippines.
In response to concerns about EMS, the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has mobilized quarantine officers, the Country’s law enforcement quick response team and fish health officials to prevent importation of live shrimp in an effort to stop the spread of EMS into Philippine waters. Specifically, BFAR is suspending the processing of application to import animals that may spread the disease. According to BFAR officials, the suspension is indefinite at this time.
EMS, also called acute hepatopancreatic necrosis syndrome (AHPNS), causes mass mortalities in cultured shrimp during the first month and has been devastating to shrimp farmers in China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Clinically diseased animals present with, among other signs, corkscrew swimming, pale coloration, loose shells, and slow growth.
BFAR took the preventative action based on the recommendation of Dr. Donald Lightner, a shrimp disease expert. “The Philippines remains EMS-free as of the moment and BFAR is exhausting all efforts to remain so,” says Perez.
Other countries, including Mexico and Ecuador, have already adopted similar preventative measures. On 24 April, the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA)–an organization of U.S. shrimp fishermen, shrimp processors, and other members of the domestic industry in the eight warmwater shrimp producing states–posted an alert regarding EMS and sent a letter to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to “raise alarm over the potential effects and spread of a disease currently devastating shrimp farms in southeast Asia.”
SSA’s Executive Director John Williams raises concerns in the letter about the potential economic impacts to industry, but he also raises questions about the potential for the disease to spread into the wild. Unfortunately there are numerous examples of where disease has been spread from infected fishes in aquaculture facilities to wild populations of fishes through a host of vectors. In the letter, Williams also raises concerns about potential adverse effects to humans who consume infected shrimp.
[W]hat is known about the potential adverse implications for human health from the consumption of raw or cooked shrimp infected with the microbe causing EMS? Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are known to emerge from the persistent and widespread use of veterinary drugs such as has occurred on shrimp farms in these nations. If such implications exist or are as yet unknown, what steps has the US government taken to protect human health?