Few people probably need to be told this, but … don’t be kissing any pigs at the county fair.
Don’t even touch one. And if you’re elderly, a young child, pregnant or sickly, stay out of the swine barn alltogether.
Despite that cute tail, big eyes and even a blue ribbon around a barrow’s neck, health officials warn that show pigs are being linked to a new strain of influenza that has sickened about 225 people across the country this summer.
“In a lot of these cases, these people came in contact with pigs at fairs,” Tom Skinner, spokesman for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week.
Some of the sick include 4-H and FFA members who bunked in swine barns.
Cases have been reported this year in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Last year, cases were seen in Maine, Utah and Iowa.
When additional victims were reported this week from Minnesota, where the state fair kicked off Thursday, Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, called for a temporary suspension of swine exhibits at fairs everywhere.
That would have been a bigger issue earlier in the summer before the fair season began to wind down. But the Kansas State Fair is set to kick off in a couple of weeks in Hutchinson.
For now, the show must go on, fair general manager Denny Stoecklein said this week. All swine entries must be in place by 6 p.m. Sept. 12.
“We know what’s going on around the country, and we’ve talked to our counterparts in other states, and we’ve talked to health officials here,” Stoecklein said. “And we still have two weeks to do something if we would have to.”
The Meek family near Spring Hill, Kan., hopes a pig ban is not in the works. Mallory, 14, and Brenden, 11, showed pigs last month at the Johnson County Fair and are now getting ready to go to Hutchinson.
“I don’t think we’re at the point where we have to cancel shows,” said Matt Meek, their father and an assistant superintendent for the Paola School District.
“It’s common sense that when you touch animals, you wash your hands. That’s what people aren’t doing.”
Osterholm, the Minnesota official, said on his agency’s website that despite symptoms that so far have been mild, “health officials could be watching a dynamic influenza situation unfold that hasn’t been seen in about 80 years.”
Further, he said, the chance of virus mutations could increase if human-to-human transmission occurs, potentially leading to a human strain that could pose a significant health threat.
The new flu is called H3N2, a variant of the H1N1 strain that caused a global pandemic that killed thousands in 2009. Symptoms of the new flu — fever, cough, body aches — are milder. Victims have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been blamed on the new virus, Skinner said.
So far, no cases have been determined to have been passed from one person to another. Rather, the culprits are sick pigs.
That’s not much of a problem with pigs on the farm. But when farmers and youngsters load them up and take them to fairs, the animals become social. Not so much at the actual shows when spectators watch from arena seats. But part of going to county and state fairs is walking through the livestock barns.
That’s where people get up close and personal with pigs. Who can resist patting that pink nose?
But pigs get sick just like people get sick.
“They cough, sneeze, and their nose runs,” Skinner said. “If people come in contact with them and then touch their (own) eyes, transmission could occur.”
The CDC warns everyone to not eat or drink anything while in the swine pavilions and to wash hands before entering and after leaving.
Just to be safe, Skinner at CDC advises the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic illness to avoid any exposure to pigs.
Fairs everywhere, such as the Missouri State Fair last week in Sedalia, have put up additional warning signs. Missouri officials said they did not get reports of any illness from the fair that ended Sunday.
“Obviously, with what had happened elsewhere, we were keeping a close eye on things,” said Missouri fair director Mark Wolfe. “Anything that showed a sign of sickness we were prepared to remove it.
“We did ask people to not carry food into the barns.”
Stoecklein, the Kansas fair director, said from Hutchinson this week that pigs must be inspected before the fair and once again after they arrive on the fairgrounds.
“We’re doing everything we can to prevent anything from happening here,” he said.
But for Matt Meek, who showed pigs as boy growing up in Johnson County, the concern isn’t just human health. When his family returns from a fair, he never puts the show animals immediately back into the general herd. He watches them for a few days to make sure they didn’t pick up a bug at the fair.
“If I brought home a sick one, I wouldn’t lose just a few pigs,” he said. “I could lose all my breeding stock.”