Of swine flu, pigs and a state fair

To date, federal monitoring has yet to turn up any U.S. pigs infected with the killer swine flu strain known as H1N1. But Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack announced yesterday that his agency’s veterinary labs would be reexamining whether any of the apparently healthy pigs exhibited in late August through early September at the Minnesota state fair might have been infected with the virus. Why? “An outbreak of 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza occurred in a group of children housed in a dormitory at the fair at the same time samples were collected from the pigs,” USDA notes.

Currently, the agency has turned up “no direct link” between the fair’s pigs and the sick kids. Just to be sure, however, USDA will be rechecking tests on the pigs that were conducted during the fair as part of a University of Iowa and University of Minnesota cooperative agreement research project. It was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which probes for flu viruses at public venues where people and pigs may come into contact with each other.

“I want to remind people that they cannot get this [H1N1] flu from eating pork or pork products,” said Vilsack. But the virus can be spread through feces. So if people cleaning up after infected pigs don’t adequately wash their hands, or if people pet infected animals, there’s a chance for the spread of infection.

USDA hopes to confirm the health of the exhibited Minnesota pigs within a few days.

UPDATE: U.S. swine infected with swine flu

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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