Influenza and You

2017 has been a particularly bad year for the influenza A virus, with many being sidelined from work or school for days after getting diagnosed with influenza.

We have all heard about influenza A virus, otherwise known as the flu, and many of us have first-hand experience with the coughing, fever, chills, and body aches that come with it. 2017 has been a particularly bad year for the flu, with many being sidelined from work or school for days after getting diagnosed with influenza. And while experts think the season has peaked and the infection rate will start to come down soon, the epidemic could last many more weeks or months, possibly even into the summer months. 

Why is this important?

Influenza A is a virus that infects not only people, but also pigs and birds. Each species, whether people, pigs, or birds, typically has their own subtype of Influenza A virus that commonly infects and easily spreads within their own species. Humans have their own subtype that commonly circulates amongst people and pigs have their own subtype that commonly spreads between pigs. Occasionally, a pig or person is sick with the flu and the virus can jump between species. This is especially important at events where people and pigs come together, like at county fairs. The higher the incidence of circulating flu, the more likely there will be transfer between species. Influenza subtypes that infect a new species usually results in severe illness, especially in people, sometimes resulting in hospitalization, or even death. It’s crucial that precautions are taken at exhibitions and fairs to minimize the potential for transfer of virus between pigs and people.

So what can be done to minimize risk? 

The best way to minimize risk is to is vaccinate pigs, reduce stress, increase biosecurity, and minimize contact between pigs and people.

These precautions start months before fair time. Vaccination of show pigs with an appropriate Influenza vaccine well in advance of exhibitions can reduce the chance that they may become ill with influenza during fair. Most flu vaccines for pigs require two or more injections and must be completed at least a month in advance of exhibition. Additionally, there are withdrawal times, usually 30 days after vaccination, before pigs are allowed to go to slaughter. It’s important to work with your veterinarian and follow label instructions.

Reducing stress in show pigs is not an easy task. Exhibition in general is a stressful event for pigs. The pigs are taken from their familiar surroundings, shipped on a trailer, and housed in a hot barn with a lot of other pigs and hundreds of strangers wandering through looking at them. Research has shown that minimizing the time pigs are in these conditions to 72 hours or less reduces the number of pigs that break with influenza infection at the fair. This in turn reduces the chance that people will get flu from pigs when visiting the swine barn. 

It is a decision for each fair board to make, however finding ways to limit pigs’ time at the fair to three days will decrease rates of illness. One option is to stagger shows so breeding pigs are on the fairgrounds for the first three days, followed by a day for cleaning and disinfection of the swine barn, and then terminal pig shows for the last half of the fair. Every fair is different, and many fairs have found creative solutions that help exhibitors, the public and the pigs have a valuable and healthy experience.

Additionally, transporting pigs to the fair and showing them during cooler evening or early morning hours can reduce stress. Remember to always keep pigs well hydrated and cool, using box fans and frequent water spritzes. Minimizing stress keeps them healthier. 

Lastly, biosecurity at the fair can not be emphasized enough. No matter how well show pigs are managed and how much their stress is minimized, it is possible that one pig in the fair will none-the-less break with a respiratory illness. Practicing good biosecurity will help reduce the spread of that illness to other pigs at the fair and result in less chance of exposure to the public. Cleaning and disinfecting weigh-in scales and sorting boards between loads at check in and nightly disinfection of wash stations will go a long way to minimizing spread of any illness in the barn. Keeping the public six feet or more from pens, limiting the public’s barn access to a few hours of the day, and prohibiting them from eating or drinking in the barn are all good risk-mitigating practices. Lastly, hand sanitizers throughout the barn, and hand wash stations at its entrance and exit are essential.

Fair time is a special time of the year for everyone and a tradition valued by many.  Good weather, good food, time with family and friends, and hours of independence and growth for exhibitors. By following these practices, we can make sure everyone stays healthy and fairs continue to be a place where the public can learn more about agriculture.

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