Two pigs remained at the Fowlerville Family Fairground yesterday Wednesday waiting for their temperatures to return to normal before they can be hauled off to a meat processor and turned into pork.
THURSDAY, AUG. 2 — Virus-infected pigs at the Fowlerville Family Fair caught the attention of local and state health officials following multiple, offseason reports of flu-like symptoms among those who recently visited the annual fair.
Livingston County medical director Donald Lawrenchuk said a few residents have reported symptoms indicative of influenza — like feverish chills, fatigue or sore throat — within days after officials discovered several 4-H exhibition pigs at the Fowlerville Fairgrounds had contracted an uncommon, type-A influenza virus often labeled as “Swine Flu.”
The jury was still out this week on whether any humans actually caught a variant of the bug during the six-day fair that ended Saturday. Lawrenchuk said the chances are slim. Samples still need to be laboratory tested and reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But he recognized his staff can’t possibly yet determine the full extent of the virus’ spread.
“We don't have a lot of confirmed cases of pig-to-human or human-to-pig transmission,” Lawrenchuk added. “The CDC is very interested in this particular outbreak — particularly with any human-to-human transmission. It's certainly not flu season right now, so any cases that do occur are going to be very suspect.”
Teenage 4-H exhibitors Thursday noticed about a dozen pigs set for auction that were acting strange and looking drowsy. Officials immediately quarantined the sickly swine while they assessed the situation. A troop of county and state health officials, flanked by fair directors and 4-H leaders, quickly arrived on scene to investigate.
Every test came back positive for swine flu later the next day, Lawrenchuk said. Fair directors decided to keep the pig barn closed for the final two days of the fair, but they didn’t feel a need to halt ticket sales to the rest of the grounds. Signs to caution guests about what was happening inside the pig barn were also unnecessary.
The risk — although possibly more widespread than imagined — was sufficiently “minimized,” officials said.
“I guess it can be transferred to humans, but it’s unlikely,” said Robert Redinger, president of the fair’s board of directors. “It didn’t seem to affect attendance.” He said State health officials weren’t that worried about it. “We were following their advice. They said this has happened at other fairs too. It’s not like this is a new thing.”
Officials said press releases were sent to local media outlets and a single sign indicating the pig barn’s closure was placed by the doorway. Reddinger said it was important to inform the public but found it unnecessary to post additional warnings visible to those standing in line Friday and Saturday, waiting to pay the $6 entrance fee.
"By law, we didn't have to,” added board member Gordon Munsell.
Swine flu is a respiratory disease that can cause “high levels” of illness in pigs but usually few deaths, according to the CDC. Sporadic transmission to humans has occurred, usually among farmhands or children playing with pigs at the fair. And limited cases of person-to-person spread have also been reported in previous outbreaks.
Munsell said the concept of closing the fair — after more than 30,000 people had already checked in earlier in the week — wasn’t even discussed when officials generated an action plan. The odds of transmission were slim. Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Lindsay Gestro said the risks were already locked behind a barn door.
The virus needs to incubate for days before it can develop into an active contagion. Fairgoers potentially could have contracted the flu in the barn, took a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl and inadvertently passed it to every subsequent rider to hop aboard, but officials largely contended the chances were small enough to take the risk.
Besides, a closure could’ve nixed the rodeo or the monster truck show. And those tickets sold at $25 a pop.
“The risk to the general fairgoer was minimal to almost negligible,” said James Averill, state veterinarian and deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. He said the spread is possible ”if you play out every single option that is viable, but there’s a risk to everything you do in life. If you played like that, you’d never manage to walk across the street.”
Two lucky pigs remained quarantined yesterday. Officials said they’ll be hauled off to the butcher when their temperatures cool down, much like the other 176 that have already been auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Livingston County Health Department emphasized the virus cannot spread through food products.
As for those showing symptoms? “Some people have talked themselves into it,” Reddinger suggested.
Still, those who suspect they may have been exposed to the virus are encouraged to report it to the health department at 517-552-6882. Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued updates as they become available.