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New Flu Virus Jumped From Pigs To Humans At State Fairs

A handler and a hog compete for the blue ribbon at the 2013 Colorado State Fair.
file: Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media
A handler and a hog compete for the blue ribbon at the 2013 Colorado State Fair.

Showing livestock at the county fair can be a great source of pride for a youngster in farm country. It can also be a source of a novel flu virus capable of starting a pandemic.

According to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 people – 16 of them children – tested positive for strains of influenza never before seen in humans after attending agricultural fairs in Ohio and Michigan in August of this year.

The likely source: hogs. Researchers confirmed all 18 people had some contact with pigs, either by actually handling the animals or passing through barns where they were held, at fairs before developing respiratory illness and flu-like symptoms. One person was hospitalized. All patients fully recovered.

The strain of flu researchers pinpointed hadn’t before been seen in humans, making its transmission from swine to people particularly troubling, and worthy of monitoring. This particular strain is a version of H3N2, most commonly found in pigs, called “variant” by researchers when it makes the leap into humans.

“The detection of any novel, non-human, influenza A virus in people should be taken seriously and fully investigated,” Rebekah Schicker, a CDC researcher who authored the report, wrote in an email. “Our investigation into this outbreak has been reassuring in that we did not detect any person to person transmission of either of these viruses.”

A director at the Mayo Clinic told CNN that the finding is “concerning.” The fact that one of the viruses detected had human genes, “puts that virus in a position where it is more likely to be transmitted from human to human,” Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic's vaccine research group told CNN.

By its very nature, influenza is wild, unpredictable, and able to shift and change. Viruses like influenza are constantly evolving, making them hard to stamp out. In this instance, these outbreaks tied to pigs at fairs didn’t produce a virus capable of jumping from person to person, but “it’s possible that these viruses could become transmissible person to person,” Shicker wrote.

To cut down on the likelihood of coming down with a variant flu virus from handling pigs, CDC researchers recommend fair organizers should consider shortening the time swine are on the fairgrounds, putting sick swine in quarantine, maintaining a veterinarian on call, providing hand-washing stations, and prohibiting food and beverages in animal barns.

There’s no indication outbreaks occurred at agricultural fairs outside of Michigan and Ohio. 

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. I also host KUNC’s live community storytelling events.
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