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New research suggests why some farms develop devastating pig disease

8 July 2011

New research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, published today (8 July), has identified the factors that make some farms more likely to develop an economically devastating pig disease. The disease, Post Weaning Multi-systemic Wasting Syndrome (PMWS), is estimated to cost the UK pig industry £30M each year. The research could help to outline best practice husbandry to enable farmers to optimise animal welfare and maintain production.

PMWS is relatively new to the UK. It was first seen in 1999 and has since become widespread. The disease strikes young pigs from about six weeks after they are removed from their mothers; they then lose weight, have difficulty breathing and can suffer from fever and diarrhoea as they slowly become emaciated. Up to 30% of infected pigs die of the disease.

In this study Pablo Alacorn and Dr Barbara Wieland from the Royal Veterinary College looked at 147 pig farms across England. Their team, led by Professor Dirk Werling, found that the farms with the lowest incidence of PMWS had clean, enriched environments with the maximum amount of space for pigs as possible.

They also found that pigs reared outside were at considerably less risk from PMWS.

PMWS is associated with the presence of a virus called porcine circovirus type 2 (PCV2) but the virus alone does not seem to cause the syndrome. Many pigs with the virus do not develop the disease. This suggests that PMWS is only likely to develop when pigs are unhealthy for other reasons.

Professor Werling explains "We found that good animal husbandry is the best way to guard against an outbreak of PMWS. If pigs are reared outdoors, or in an enriched, clean environment, they are far less likely to get sick, even if the virus is present."

"Our research suggests that by reducing the likelihood of PMWS, improving conditions for pigs is a good investment because, in the long term, production is improved."

Professor Werling received £2.4M for the PMWS project through the BBSRC Combating Endemic Diseases For Farm-Animal Sustainability programme (CEDFAS). As part of the project his team have been working with the British Pig Executive (BPEX) to develop monitoring tools to help farmers judge whether their farms are at high risk of PMWS.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council said "Combating animal diseases, both in the UK and internationally, will be crucial if we are to ensure that we can provide safe, sustainable, nutritious and affordable food to all. PMWS is endemic to the UK, but this research demonstrates that the disease can be combated in a way that saves the pig farming industry millions of pounds whilst also improving animal welfare."

This research is published in the journal Preventative Veterinary Medicine.


Notes to editors

Professor Werling and colleagues are available to discuss these findings and can be reached through the BBSRC Media Office.


Launched in July 2007, the £11.4M project aims to tackle endemic animal diseases that undermine the UK farming and cost UK farmers (and consumers indirectly) hundreds of millions of pounds a year as well as causing significant animal welfare problems.

The 10 grants awarded to researchers will better scientific understanding of the behaviour and spread of diseases such as infectious bronchitis, bovine tuberculosis, and those caused by parasitic nematodes.

CEDFAS is led by BBSRC and is backed by the Scottish Government; some individual projects have additional funding from Defra and industrial partners.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences and the largest single public funder of agriculture and food-related research.

Sponsored by Government, BBSRC’s budget for 2011-12 is around £445M which it is investing in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.