Adalynn Achtermann age 4 showed her Hampshire Gilt at the Clinton County Fair. Photo by Kayla Alexander.

Clinton County Fair swine flu frustration, misinformation and lessons learned

After long hours of work and extensive investment in time and money to get to the show ring, emotions can run high, especially when things do not go as planned. That was certainly the case when, unfortunately, swine influenza was lab confirmed at the Clinton County Fair in July.

The Clinton County Fair Board worked closely with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Clinton County Agricultural Society and local and state health officials to stop further spread of this virus in the hog population by making it a terminal show. State Veterinarian Tony Forshey said it was a tough, but necessary, decision.

“We have dealt with influenza for several years at county fairs so that is nothing new. This was a unique case. In this case, this pig came in on a Saturday and became feverish on the following Wednesday. Then we had several others get sick on Thursday so we knew we had a fairly high viral load there. We had taken culture swabs on those and came up with an H3N2 influenza virus, which is fairly common on pigs. With the hot temperatures and high humidity it stressed the pigs enough and caused disease. We quarantined the barn and from a public health standpoint and to protect our other hog farms, we made it a terminal show and sent those pigs directly to slaughter on Thursday night,” Forshey said. “We all understand and know that there is a financial investment — and some of them fairly large in some of those animals — but every situation is handled case-by-case. This spread very rapidly so we had to take some immediate response, which we did. It doesn’t mean the next partial terminal show we’ll do that. It is all case-by-case based on the numbers of animals sick, how hot it is, human health risk, public health — all of those factors go into deciding what we are going to do. With as many pigs sick as there were, we felt that it was necessary to quarantine and send them all directly to slaughter. If there are only one or two sick, we have encouraged fair boards to have an isolation location for those animals to go to or we may even send them home to get them out of there. When you have this many pigs sick and the viral loads are so high, the risk of this spreading if we sent them back home would be pretty high.”

Forshey stressed the importance of exhibitors taking the proper precautions. Signs of influenza in hogs include off feed, lethargic, sneezing, and coughing. Exhibitors should avoid sharing equipment and clean and disinfect it before using. People eating, drinking or sleeping in the barns should be avoided.

“Don’t bring sick animals to the fair. You have to monitor your pigs. We have veterinarians at every fair and they have to do daily walkthroughs, but the exhibitors are the ones who are the key. They know if something is wrong with their pig and have to notify the fair veterinarian or barn superintendent quickly if it is an influenza situation so we can get them isolated and so we don’t increase the viral load in that barn,” Forshey said. “Even though there is some natural immunity to something like a H3N2 influenza, if you get enough virus in a barn it will override the immune response. It needs constant monitoring, constant sanitation, and washing hands several times a day — those are the sorts of thing that are important to keep the viral load down. And, one of the things we recommend is don’t bring a pig home from the county fair and then within seven days take them to another fair. That way we have enough incubation time there that if the pig comes home and gets sick then we know not to take it to the next fair. And, if you have a really good breeding gilt that you have spent some money on, it is probably not a good idea to take the risk of taking it to the fair.”

Around 60% the state’s county fairs and the Ohio State Fair have hog shows that are terminal, though some fairs have shows where only some of the hogs are processed following the competition and the rest can return home. Forshey prefers the terminal shows, because they can help address these types of health concerns, but stresses that the decision is ultimately up to the individual fair boards.

“We just give recommendations. We have talked about making junior market swine shows terminal at all of our fairs, but I don’t think that is realistic. Fair boards need to decide themselves on what to do. If a disease breaks out that is where we come in,” Forshey said. “I don’t think making all shows terminal is feasible. It is up to the fair boards and it is up to exhibitors to determine what risk they have.”

The decision to make a show terminal, even for breeding animals not otherwise destined for market, is always challenging because of the many implications. Jamie May has a show pig operation in Fayette County and lost some quality breeding gilts that were at the Clinton County Fair. May said extensive measures are taken by most hog breeders to vaccinate and then quarantine their animals appropriately to manage disease effectively. The decision to make the show terminal created a negative situation for some youth exhibitors and hog breeders with animals at the show, he said.

“In my situation it was devastating. I only have 15 to 20 sows most of the time and I lost two gilts. That is 10% of my future herd. Is it life or death? No, but it is something I have worked 30 years to get to the level of those gilts and you don’t just replace them overnight. And my losses were minor compared to some situations that I know about,” May said. “I can tell you 10 different breeders that were there. One of them maybe had close to $30,000 in gilts that went on that terminal truck.”

Since the Clinton County Fair, May and his family have changed their plans for the Fayette County Fair hog show.

“We didn’t take the ones we had initially planned on taking. Those best breeding gilts that had been scheduled to go to the county fair are still home in the barn. We can’t take the chance of losing more,” May said. “My daughter’s showmanship barrow for county fair is also her state fair barrow, so he did not go to the county fair. If it would become terminal, then she has nothing to show at the state fair. For the gilts, we took the seconds and the thirds because there is a chance they will be gone.”

May also said that situations like this can result in unwarranted public concern.

“The announcement was made at a poor time when you had the most public there right in the middle of the show. It was mass chaos and I thought it could have been handled differently,” May said. “Hopefully we don’t see any more issues, but now that public awareness is where it is from a negative standpoint and the panic is out there. The first pig coughs or sneezes and everyone will assume it is a virus. The general public is nervous now and those things cause hasty decisions.

“It is a really tough call. You are torn between different parts of the industry and you’re trying to do the right thing for the exhibitors, the fair board, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and the public and I totally understand that it is a very difficult decision that affects a lot of people. You’re never going to make everyone happy, but I personally thought this was the wrong decision.”

Misinformation was a significant problem surrounding the incident with inaccurate and flat out wrong media reports following the announcement.

“The biggest thing we heard was that the barns were going to be destroyed with the hogs in it and that was completely not true,” said Kayla Alexander, a 10-year 4-H advisor in Clinton County. “The phones rang off the hook non-stop. The misinformation became the leading information out there. We took to social media to get the right information out there. I was very impressed with our fair board, though, and they way they stepped up to get out the proper information. We have a very involved senior fair board and swine committee that took ahold of things. We are also very fortunate that we have a vet here locally to make sure the exhibitors knew exactly where they stood and what was going on.”

Sisters Bella Early, 10, and Abi Earley, 9 share a hug after Abi's win in swine showmanship at the Clinton County Fair. Photo by Kayla Alexander.
Sisters Bella Early, 10, and Abi Earley, 9 share a hug after Abi’s win in swine showmanship at the Clinton County Fair. Photo by Kayla Alexander.

Alexander’s first course of action upon learning about influenza in the swine barn was to address exhibitor concerns.

“There were a lot of questions from the youngsters. They were hearing all of the negatives and the concerns. We told them that this was just like getting a cold and it was very unlikely that they were going to get sick. There is a lot of time committed to this project and these kids work really hard. Emotions were high and tensions were high. We spent a lot of time talking to our kids and making sure they understood what it was,” Alexander said. “The kids were still able to show and sell their animals. We haven’t run hogs through the sale in many years anyway and they got to complete the show. The kids all worked so hard and they earned the same awards that they would have if things had gone completely normally, but there are still a lot of emotions. There were exhibitors planning to take those pigs to the state fair and they just wanted to get them out a couple of times. The exhibitors were just doing what they thought was right and there was an unfortunate turn of events and they had to lose those pigs.”

But sometimes, learning lessons in livestock can be really hard.

“I believe the right decision was made. We have to protect the industry as a whole and that is what we did with the precautionary steps that were taken. We have now protected multiple other counties by getting the information out there,” she said. “For some of those kids this was their last year and it was hard to swallow, but it was something that had to be done to protect everybody and we have to look at the bigger picture.”

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