It might sound strange, but transmission of the flu between humans and pigs is not just possible – it can be quite common.
Now, Jeff Bender, D.V.M., an associate professor of veterinary public health in the College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety has partnered with researchers from other universities across the country to demonstrate that swine shows and state fairs may be contributing to the spread of swine flu.
In a new study published today by the CDC’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, Bender and colleagues outline how almost 20 percent of seemingly healthy pigs at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair were carrying the influenza virus, and at least four were carrying the virus responsible for 2009’s swine flu pandemic.
“This study just shows that viruses are shared between pigs and people,” Bender told the Star Tribune, and that it may be harder to spot an infected pig than once thought. “We were expecting, boy, if pigs had a virus then they should be [feverish], sick and easy to screen out.” According to Bender that simply wasn’t the case.
For their part, Minnesota State Fair officials told WCCO-TV that animals will be closely monitored this year, especially in light of the more than 150 people sickened with a new type of swine flu – H3N2 – that has been linked to pigs at county or state fairs in Indiana and Ohio. (It’s important to note that currently, no pigs in Minnesota have been found infected by the new strain of influenza.)
Minnesota State Fair officials will also be working to raise awareness around how people can limit the spread of illness and prevent the spread of swine flu.
According to Bender and his colleagues, people who work closely with pigs should receive seasonal influenza vaccines, use personal protective equipment when working with healthy pigs and limit their contact with sick pigs. Regular monitoring of influenza among pigs and testing of sick persons who have been exposed to pigs can also help minimize the spread.
For fair-goers, the message is also simple: if you go to the State Fair, wash your hands after being in the barn of any animals, don’t eat while in the barns and avoid contact with animals if you have a compromised immune system.