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Learn how influenza topped fake news

Some of you may remember back to the fun days when taking a pig to the fair was the highlight of summer. Early on I wrote about my sons exercising their pigs in the roadside ditch when the pigs started chasing cars. Of course, the more the pigs chased the car, the driver slowed down which of course egged the pigs on to run even faster alongside.

Now the 4-H swine business has become a much more serious project. Readers may remember that it wasn’t only a couple years ago that all 4-H poultry projects in Ohio were banned from exhibition because of an epidemic of avian influenza — a disease that might have easily caused an epidemic in humans.

It wasn’t until the days of checking DNA and genomic testing did anyone realize the different “strains” of influenza. (I call it a strain even though a more appropriate term is genotype.) Influenza or flu as most people call it has a long history, even though most of us chalk it up as one of those diseases that might cause us to stay home from work or school for a couple of days.

The 1918 influenza outbreak caused a pandemic worldwide. In the spring of 1918 (and then a reappearance in the fall) this pandemic caused an estimated 50 million human deaths worldwide. So influenza isn’t anything to trifle with, especially in this age of around-the-world travel. It is a virus that can jump back and forth between humans, pigs, poultry, and wild birds then back again.

You would need to live in a shoebox to not know about the influenza outbreak in pigs that occurred recently at the Clinton County Fair. What you may not know is that influenza in pigs at the Clinton Country Fair appears to actually contain some human DNA genetic code rather than just the normal flu virus found in pigs.

Here are some basic facts. From early in my career until recent years, influenza was primarily classified as H1N1. Now with molecular genetics and DNA analysis we know that the virus has been changing. It has mutated to several different new types. For instance just to name a few there are: H3N2, H7N8, H3N5 and then we could also discuss low-pathogen versus high pathogen influenza. You get the idea, as fast as the virus can modify itself to attack a vulnerable animal or a human, it will.

Formerly swine vaccines were primarily for H1N1. You can deduce that a vaccine for a specific genotype may be very effective. We can’t vaccinate our way out of having either sick animals or sick humans if the latest infection is a different genotype.

The current strategy experts have espoused is biosecurity. This refers to use a common sense approach towards eliminating or minimizing exposure when evaluating the risk of contracting a disease in either humans or animals. Sick pigs, just like sick children, should have limited risk or no risk of exposing others. Don’t send a sick pig with a fever to the fair just as you shouldn’t send a sick child to school.

Someone took a sick pig with a fever to the Clinton County fair. Authorities know this because pigs started spiking fevers immediately upon arrival rather than the virus incubating several days before illness appeared. Fortunately the fair veterinarian recognized early on that too many pigs were getting sick and called for diagnostic expertise from the virologists at the State Animal Diagnostic Lab in Reynoldsburg. They responded immediately.

Nasal swabs confirmed a diagnosis of influenza H3N2. Over the next couple of days more pigs tested positive demonstrating that an epidemic had started. Approximately 68 pigs were confirmed ill of the slightly less than 300 pigs in the swine pavilion. Since then, the CDC in Atlanta has been doing further DNA sequencing to pinpoint its precise anatomy. A human DNA sequence has also been identified in the virus.

Dr. Tony Forshey, the state veterinarian, and his team quarantined the barn early in the course of the disease. The team made the decision to allow the youth to show their projects while in quarantine as the show arena was adjacent to the pig pens. Parents were allowed to attend to watch the 4-Hers show their animals, but other interested parties were excluded. At the conclusion of the show, the pigs were then sent to a packing plant for processing into meat — a normal sequence of events after most county fair shows.

News outlets reported faster than the influenza could spread that the pigs were destroyed and the barn burned down. Talk about fake news! What a bunch of baloney, or perhaps I should say sausage, the pig kind. No pigs were destroyed at the fair and no barns burned. After the show the pigs were shipped to a packing company for processing into meat. With standard processing and inspection, all of the meat from chops to bacon was determined to be safe to consume. Contrary to what was reported by several other news outlets, the barn was not burned but cleaned and sanitized. Since those early reports news organizations did get their stories straight.

Some had several thousand dollars for their pigs. These exhibitors were angry because their plans were to ship these high dollar porkers from fair to fair and win as many prizes as possible. Perhaps they may have even planned on a climax at the State Fair. If their pig was a champion, it would bring a lot of recognition and money in the Sale of Champions.

These individuals would have chosen to ignore the health risks. Should these infected pigs be allowed to move to other show premises, a major epidemic was certain to occur at every exhibition the pigs appeared and likely start a human health crisis. Ohio’s commercial swine industry would also have been put to a serious health and economic risk. It is readily apparent that protecting all Ohioans and the commercial swine industry is critical. There are over two million commercial breeding and market swine in Ohio supplying high quality protein in the form of meat to consumers.

I grew up showing pigs, my sons showed pigs and my granddaughters are showing pigs next month. Today it is most important to protect the commercial swine industry rather than gunners going for the big prize. There is more to life than the big prize, the accompanying recognition and a big paycheck for a few individuals.

Dr. Forshey took a lot of heat for quarantining those Clinton County pigs, allowing them to show their pigs, then shutting down the swine exhibition and sending the pigs to slaughter. In view of the virus containing aberrant human DNA code, allowing the pigs to move onto other exhibitions may have started a human influenza epidemic. In my estimation he made a wise decision for the Ohio citizens and also the swine industry, but yet was compassionate to 4-Hers in Clinton County. Kudos to Dr. Forshey and his team!


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