MINNEAPOLIS - University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., has sounded an alarm about having pigs at the Minnesota State Fair. However, not all are receptive to the warning.
"To this point," said Jerry Hammer, general manager of the Minnesota State Fair, "there have been about 80 million people that have visited state and county fairs this summer and there are 250 cases of this particular virus. So, they have concluded that the risk is already very low."
"What we are seeing right now," countered Osterholm, "is an absolutely unprecedented situation with this transmission of this flu virus from pigs to people."
Osterholm said he is concerned about the possibility of setting the stage for a pandemic, a worldwide outbreak of a new virus.
"Every time this virus is transmitted from a pig to a pig or from a pig to a person, we actually run the risk of it genetically changing even more than it has," Osterholm said. "It is already a virus that has gone through a lot of genetic changes and that is exactly how pandemic viruses start; the ones that cause world-wide outbreaks of influenza."
"I think others have talked about a theoretical risk," deputy state epidemiologist Richard Danila offered, "What if the virus mutates? But, you know, that could happen any day, anywhere, anytime. If we close down the Swine Barn at the Minnesota State Fair, then I guess you would have to close down every swine barn at every state fair, at every county fair for the rest of the year and maybe next year, too."
Osterholm's solution is exactly that: no pigs at the Fair or any fair.
"The only way to really avoid the transmission that is occurring right now is to basically take people and pigs and separate them," said Osterholm. "The recommendation we are making applies to all fairs in North America."
Danila disagreed. "This new virus, this new swine pig influenza virus, H3N2v, occurred in state fairs in Ohio and Indiana and Pennsylvania. So, the measures we have in place, we think, are proportional to the risk."
Danila referred to the presence of veterinarians at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, checking animals as they arrive and while they are in the Swine Barn. He also noted signs at the barn urging visitors not to drink or eat food inside and to wash their hands at the hand washing stations at all livestock exhibits.
Osterholm did not accept those measures as preventative. "Our data shows clearly that many of the pigs are asymptomatic (do not appear ill), so we try to screen for symptoms, you do not pick it up. Second of all, despite the advice from some in public health to wash your hands, there is no evidence that handwashing reduces the transmission of influenza." Osterholm did say that handwashing was useful in eliminating other infections, such as ecoli or salmonella, but not air-borne influenza.
Danila added some caveats: "If you are in a high risk group for this new virus, pregnant, less than 5, over 65, have a chronic disease, heart disease, diabetes, do not go into the barn at all."
Of the more than 200 reported cases around the country, Danila said most did not involve casual contact. "The vast majority of them had prolonged contact with swine. They were either swine exhibitors themselves or workers at the state fairs in the swine barns."
Osterholm said he fears that children will become infected with the new virus at the State Fair, then carry it back to the schools to spread when classes resume after Labor Day.
"I would much rather be sorry for having said 'well, we created an inconvenience, fortunately nothing happened,' than sitting here saying why didn't we do something?" said Osterholm. "We could have and should have and now look what is happening."
Danila said health and State Fair officials are urging fairgoers not to touch any of the pigs. He said his department was still "talking" to the "Miracle of Birth" exhibitors about not allowing children to touch new-born piglets at the exhibit.
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