State fair on watch for swine flu

Published 10:43 am Friday, August 23, 2013

16 contract influenza from pigs in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio

FALCON HEIGHTS — Health officials are paying close attention to pigs and people at the Minnesota State Fair for any signs of swine flu.

A strain of swine flu swept through fairs last summer, sickening over 300 people in a dozen states including Minnesota. This year, 16 people have contracted influenza from pigs after visiting fairs in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.

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To lessen the chance that visitors will contract flu from pigs, the Board of Animal Health has been encouraging fairs to ban the practice of holding over some pigs after their competition has ended.

Minnesota hasn’t had any cases so far this year, but most swine at this year’s State Fair will leave after 72 hours to reduce the risks.

Last year, signs at the fair advised people in high risk groups to stay out of the barns, including young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. But those signs are gone this year.

This year, signs posted outside of animal buildings ask fairgoers to keep food, drinks, pacifiers, baby bottles and strollers out of the barns. People who’ve had a fever in the past seven days are asked to stay away.

At the Steele County Free Fair in Owatonna last week, Dr. James Gute walked slowly through the swine barns, clipboard in hand.

“My main thing is to make sure there isn’t anything here that’s sick,” said Gute, the fair’s official veterinarian. “If I hear a cough, I’m going to go over and look at the pig. And if he looks a little dull to me I’m going to take his temperature. If he has a temperature, out the door they go immediately.”

Fair veterinarians look for many different illnesses in pigs, but Gute said the new flu strain, H3N2v, is at the top of the list these days.

In most cases, H3N2v, hasn’t been a severe flu in humans, State Public Health Veterinarian Joni Scheftel said. And there’s no evidence that the virus is easily transmitted from person-to-person. But she said it’s important to keep monitoring because flu viruses are always changing.

Fairgoers may also notice signs encouraging them to wash their hands frequently. While that helps reduce exposure to flu viruses, Scheftel said, it’s not 100 percent effective because flu spreads primarily through the air.