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Pigs wait for their food in a farm in Makassar on April 29, 2009.YUSUF AHMAD/Reuters

The head of an agency tracking pig health says a deadly virus that has hit swine farms in at least two provinces would be spreading more swiftly throughout the country if it weren't for stricter measures taken after a U.S. outbreak.

Canadian Swine Health Board executive director Robert Harding said the emergence of porcine epidemic diarrhea in the United States last May gave the pig industry and governments here a "heads up" that, along with more vigilant farm practices in recent years, has helped minimize its impact thus far.

"If we didn't have the detailed focus on biosecurity in Canada, within the Canadian industry, I think it's pretty evident that this disease would already have spread right across the country," he said Saturday.

The highly contagious virus has killed millions of piglets in the United States but poses no risk to human health or safety. It first emerged in Canada less than a month ago at a Southwestern Ontario pig farm.

A pair of new cases confirmed Friday have raised Ontario's total to 16 affected farms, while this week has also seen a suspected case on Prince Edward Island and one confirmed instance of the virus in Manitoba.

Harding said that while it wasn't a given PED would reach Canadian barns, the extent of its spread here so far has been less than many had expected.

"The question is, well how did Canada keep it out for so long? Because there's a lot of integrated parts of our industries back-and-forth across the border with Canada and the U.S."

He said that while it's not clear just how the virus got into Canada, one way the disease can spread is through the vehicles carrying swine to and from farms — a vector that has been a focus in the battle against PED.

Pig-hauling trucks are being thoroughly washed before rolling onto farms, while even boots and clothing worn outside are being swapped for farm-only pairs, as PED can be carried in manure.

Such precautions are impeding the virus, and with relatively few cases "we still have an opportunity to win this battle," said Harding, whose watchdog group is composed of pork industry and veterinarian associations.

The provinces and Ottawa are working together to tighten biosecurity efforts and share information, while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is letting veterinarians import a special emergency vaccine.

"The game plan now moving forward is every province is stronger in their resolve to do what we have to do to make sure this doesn't spread any further," Harding said.

"Each of these individual cases is being looked at with the goal of being able to contain and then eliminate the disease."

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