As Georgia’s fair season cranks into high gear, people will be in closer proximity to livestock — increasing their chances of contracting the zoonotic swine flu H3N2v.
H3N2 first appeared in swine in 1998, but the first cases of H3N2v were seen in humans in 2011 after the virus picked up a gene common in human flu strains, said Corrie Brown, a veterinary pathologist with the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in diseases that can jump from animals to humans. The “v” in H3N2v indicates that it’s a variant of the H3N2 swine virus that affects people.
Experts with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension are asking people to remember to wash their hands after handling pigs, and recommend that people with compromised immune systems avoid petting zoos and livestock shows where pigs are present.
“The symptoms and severity are the same as regular flu, but the regular flu is very serious for some people,” said Ronnie Silcox, an Extension specialist with the UGA Department of Animal and Dairy Science. “If you are in a high-risk group you may not want to visit swine exhibits if you go to the fair this fall.”
There have been no cases of H3N2v identified in Georgia so far, but Silcox urges people to be cautious.
“The fair season starts in the Midwest in the late summer and moves further south as fall progresses and the temperatures cool down,” Silcox said. “Our fair season is really ahead of us, so it's quite possible that this will move south, and we just haven’t seen any cases yet because we haven’t had any fairs.”
As of Sept. 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tracked 297 human cases of H2N3v this year. Out of these nearly 300 cases, 16 people were hospitalized and one died from flu complications.
This summer public health officials in Indiana, Ohio and a handful of other states started to see dozens of summer flu cases as their county and state fair seasons got underway, Silcox said. Almost all of people diagnosed with H3N2v either exhibited pigs at a fair or attended a pig exhibit.
The new flu strain is not passed easily from person to person, and there is no chance of contracting the flu from eating pork, Silcox said.
There’s nothing about fair season in general or show pigs that contributes to H3N2v, but fairs are a time when pigs — who are usually isolated on their own farms — are around new pigs from other farms and a lot of new people. This increased contact means there are more chances for the virus to spread from pig to pig and from pigs to people.
H3N2 is related to H1N1 — the pandemic flu that spread so quickly in 2008 and 2009 — but it is a different virus that has been primarily associated with swine herds until now. In contrast, Brown noted that the H1N1 “swine flu” virus was not actually prevalent in swine during the 2008 and 2009 flu season, but it has since become more common in pigs.
The H3N2 virus was able to infect people because it picked up a segment of the DNA of the H1N1 virus while it was being transmitted from pig to pig.
While it is not any more virulent than the annual flu, people who are at risk of complications from flu — those over 65, children under 5, pregnant women and people with diabetes, asthma, weakened immune systems or heart disease — are at risk for complications of H3N2v. They should avoid pigs and swine barns, according to the CDC.
Education and preparation are key
Georgia 4-H program leaders are busy teaching their students how to avoid getting sick from being in contact with their or their friends’ show pigs, Silcox said. 4-H National Headquarters and the CDC distributed a factsheet this August with some basic precautions that students and their families should take to stay well.
These included common sense recommendations like: wash your hands often if you are working with or petting pigs, do not eat or drink anything inside the pig barn, and do not take small children’s toys, strollers or pacifiers inside the pig barn. The recommendations also remind families that individuals at risk for developing complications from the flu should avoid pigs entirely.
Silcox, who advises Georgia 4-H’s livestock showing program, has helped disseminate this message and has also worked with some of the larger fairs — like the Georgia National Fair in Perry — to provide hand washing or sanitizing stations in their livestock show barns. Fair goers will also notice more signage this year advising them to wash their hands and avoid the swine barns if they are in a high-risk category.
Parents should keep a close eye on their children to make sure they wash their hands after petting pigs, Silcox said.
For more information about how to avoid the H3N2v flu visit www.cdc.gov/flu/swineflu/h3n2v-outbreak.htm