At the end of July, swine influenza was detected at the Jackson County Junior Fair. With the West Virginia State Fair starting Aug. 11, state officials are taking all precautions to stop the spread of the virus.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) has confirmed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that three cases of influenza A H3N2v in humans are tied to the swine barn at the Jackson County Junior Fair.
Better known as swine flu, this particular strain first jumped from humans to pigs before mutating into its own, distinct strain. The outbreak has led to the closure to the public of the pig barn at this week’s state fair. As to why the virus made the jump back into humans in West Virginia last month, that seems to be a question of chance.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why it happened in Jackson County. It could have easily happened anywhere across the United States, but it did happen here,” said West Virginia State Epidemiologist Shannon McBee. “We were able to quickly isolate the pigs and close the swine barn for public viewing to prevent further transmission of the virus into the general community and bring a heightened awareness of the situation as we are entering fair season here in West Virginia.”
McBee said that just like humans, pigs experience seasonal outbreaks of influenza. While rare, these strains can make the jump to humans.
“The virus that we’re dealing with here in Jackson County, is a commonly circulating virus in swine and so there wasn’t anything new detected,” she said. “It just jumped from pigs to humans, which is something that sporadically does occur.”
Swine flu generally does not spread between humans, nor does it spread through eating pork. The biggest factor is exposure to pigs, and these days, most people simply don’t interact with livestock enough to make it a real concern.
“The risk to the general public is very low,” McBee said. “Most illnesses with these types of viruses have been mild. However, anyone at high risk of serious flu complications planning to attend a fair, where there might be pigs should avoid pigs or the swine barn at the fair. The individuals that we consider at high risk for flu complications include young children, pregnant women, and postpartum women up to two weeks after delivery, your older adults and then individuals with certain chronic medical problems.”
The DHHR and state Department of Agriculture are always on the lookout for more common zoonotic illnesses; those are diseases like Lyme, malaria, or rabies that can be transmitted from animals to humans. And given the importance of agriculture and livestock to the state, special precautions are being taken around pig human interactions this year.
“We actually lead the nation in family farms, still,” said West Virginia Agricultural Commissioner Kent Leonhardt. “You look at our great seal, there’s a miner and a farmer.”
Leonhardt said the decision to close down the pig farms at the Jackson County fair, as well as this weekend’s state fair, were not taken lightly.
“We don’t take these decisions on our own, and we don’t do it in an isolated fashion,” he said. “Last Friday, after we had all the results of everything, we actually had a meeting with DHHR, Department of Agriculture, the Fair Board, WVU extension, and many surrounding states that have had similar concerns and things and quite frankly, everybody came up with the same conclusion.”
The closure is an added precaution on top of established practices to ensure farm animals from across the state can be brought together for display safely. Due to an ongoing avian influenza outbreak in surrounding states, no live birds will be displayed at this year’s state fair at all.
“Here at the State Fair, we’re inspecting every animal that comes up,” Leonhardt said. “There’s a check in point, any animal that comes in, whether it’s a swine, a horse, or a sheep, or goat or a cow, and before those animals head to the barn, they’re actually inspected by a Department of Agriculture employee.”
Leonhardt said that check point testing happens every year at the State Fair, and is available to other fairs around the state upon request. Pigs racing and swine competitions will still be held at the fair this year because the risk is low, and the payoff for the state agribusiness is high.
“They show their animals and they develop a high quality animal, and they want to take pride in what they’ve done,” Leonhardt said. “But it’s also a show mission, but it’s a discipline that is part of the learning experience of our youth in agriculture. They take these animals from a very young age, and they raise them. So not only does it help them establish potentially an interest in a business later on. But it also instills an awful lot of discipline in learning.”
Agriculture is a big part of West Virginia history and culture, but finding ways to keep the community involved safely is the new challenge.