WEDNESDAY, AUG. 15 — Three people sickened after exposure to diseased pigs at the Fowlerville Family Fair are among few in the United States to contract a rare strain of influenza often labeled as “swine flu.”
One adult from Ingham County and two local children last month caught Influenza A (H1N2) at the fairgrounds following close contact with several pigs who previously tested positive for the same virus, according to officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. An investigation was ongoing this week.
The trio are on the path to recovery but represent three of only five nationwide to catch the virus so far this year.
The Livingston County emergency preparedness coordinator, Lindsay Gestro, said she will continue to monitor for additional, unseasonal cases of influenza but that she hasn’t received any additional reports of flu-like symptoms into her office since. The investigation, however, is in now the hands of state officials, she added.
Since reporting for novel influenza A viruses began nationally in 2005, only 18 human infections of the virus — including the three cases from Fowlerville — have ever been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the state health department. No cases of human-to-human transmission have been reported.
“We’re working with the fair as well as any other individuals to see if there were other cases that we need to investigate,” added department spokeswoman Angela Minicuci, noting none of the three were hospitalized.
Symptoms of swine influenza are similar to the seasonal flu, including fever, cough, running nose and sometimes body aches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, officials said. But in rare cases of human transmission, symptoms can lead to more severe complications, such as pneumonia or death. Children and elderly naturally face larger risks.
The 4-H pig barn last month caught the attention of local and state health officials after several exhibition pigs tested positive for the strain toward the end of the six-day fair. Officials then said human exposure was unlikely, but concerns grew when fairgoers called into the county health department to report subsequent symptoms.
Fair directors kept 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 were also unnecessary. The risk — although more widespread than imagined — was sufficiently “minimized” at the time, officials said.
Officials also said the concept of closing the fair — after crowds of people had already checked in earlier in the week — wasn’t even discussed when officials generated an action plan. The odds of transmission were too slim. Gestro said the virus needed to incubate for days before it could develop into an active contagion.
James Averill, state veterinarian and deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, previously labeled the risk as “minimal to almost negligible.” The spread was possible “if you play out every single option,” he suggested. Those options, days later, became a reality for his office.
No vaccine can protect someone from swine influenza and the seasonal flu vaccine doesn’t help, according to the health department. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza, however, are effective treatment options. Officials said early treatment often works best. Those with symptoms should quickly report them to their local health department.
Minicuci further urged those who deal with swine and other farm animals to keep their hands clean.
The sickly 4-H pigs have since been auctioned off to the highest bidder. County officials emphasized the virus cannot spread through handling or eating pork products — only from direct contact with ill swine. Respiratory samples from those diagnosed with the virus will also undergo additional testing as the investigation continues.
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