State Fair to be more vigilant, but pig barn stays open

Becky Church
Becky Church, 17, has been showing swine at the Minnesota State Fair for the last five years. She raises the animals on her family's farm in Hastings, and represents the Future Farmers of America's chapter in Randolph. The fair is expected to host about 900 pigs this year.
Photo courtesy Becky Church

For now, the hog show is on at the Minnesota State Fair.

Although a prominent public health expert said Tuesday he'd like to see pigs banned from the State Fair and other public gatherings over concerns about swine flu, fair and health officials say the pig barn will be open when the fair opens Thursday.

Veterinarians will keep a watchful eye out for sick pigs, and exhibitors have been told to speak up immediately if they or their animal is ill, said deputy state epidemiologist Richard Danila.

Health experts also said children under 5, people over 65, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should stay away from the pigs. Visitors may also be asked not to touch pigs.

At this point, Minnesota has reported one confirmed case of the swine flu and another suspected case.

Former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told MPR News Tuesday he worries the swine flu could grow more virulent -- and even deadly -- if it passes too often between pigs and people.

"What we're very concerned about here is that with repeated transmissions that occur from pigs to people ... that is a perfect setup for creating a much, much more severe virus," Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said.

Empty pig pens
Empty pens at the Minnesota State Fair swine barn, Aug. 21, 2012. Despite concerns about swine flu, fair and health officials say the pig barn will be open when the fair opens Thursday. Veterinarians will keep a watchful eye out for sick pigs, and exhibitors have been told to speak up immediately if they or their animal is ill.
MPR photo/Tim Nelson

He said the safest thing to do would be to simply ban pigs from fairs while this strain of flu is circulating.

"In 80 years of culturing this virus, no one has seen anything even close to this situation that we're seeing now with this H3N2 variant virus in North America," Osterholm said. "What's happened in fairs around the country in the last month is just absolutely unprecedented."

But pig producers and some health officials say that concern may be overblown. They point out that pigs and people interact closely away from the fair all around the world.

Danila, the epidemiologist, said the low number of cases in Minnesota is a good sign.

There are likely to be about 900 pigs at the fair, between 4H kids starting to arrive Wednesday and FFA exhibitors next weekend.

"There probably have been 50 million, 80 million visitors at county and state fairs this last few months, with many countless human-pig interactions," Danila said. "Yet, to date, there have only been 230 human cases of this new virus. And most of those have been mild illness, most of them have been children, and most of them have been in people with prolonged swine contact."

The bottom line, he said: there's no need to close the swine barn or ban pigs from the fair, and the danger of viral mutation is only theoretical at this point.

Swine flu threat reaches Indonesia
A leading epidemiolgist had urged that pigs should be banned altogether from public gatherings, including the upcoming Minnesota State Fair. But Deputy State Epidemiologist Richard Danila says the swine show will go on.
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Becky Church, a 17-year-old FFA exhibitor who raises pigs on her family farm in Hastings, said she's glad she'll be able to bring her pig to the fair for the fifth straight year.

"I show market hogs," Church said. "Each year I buy some in the spring just to show for the fair. Each morning, I wake up at 5 a.m. to go out and work with them and spend on average five hours outside each day, working with beef, sheep and pigs. I actually show all three of them."

For her, the Great Minnesota Get Together is the equivalent of a state tournament.

"You're working all season in a sport to get to that ultimate goal, and with the farm animals, it's no different."

Closing the pig barn would be a big disappointment to the kids who show their animals, said Duane Hutton, the state fair superintendent for the FFA.

"Those kids that come up with their animals, they're working the whole time, keeping them comfortable and clean and showing them," Hutton said.

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