Low-key response to swine ’flu so far
TORONTO—It’s been found in pigs and/or people in more than 10 U.S. states and counting.
In less than a month, more than 200 people—most young children—have been infected by an unwanted visitor to many of the state and county fairs that are held at this time of year.
Public health authorities—perhaps still stinging from criticism of the response to the H1N1 pandemic—are struggling to strike the right note with this virus, which so far doesn’t seem to be spreading from person to person.
But is their low-key strategy the right one to take?
One prominent ’flu expert is questioning the approach, which largely has focused on encouraging people not to eat or drink while touring pig barns at fairs and to wash their hands after visiting these exhibits.
Michael Osterholm suggests it’s too soon to conclude that this new virus is going to be a mere nuisance or just another weird chapter in the ever-perplexing saga of influenza viruses.
And he says it’s time to take what likely would be a very unpopular step—tell organizers that this year, pigs should stay home from the fair.
“I’m convinced that wherever you have pigs and fairs right now, you’re seeing this transmission—at least in North America,” said Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, and of the Minnesota Center for Excellence in Influenza Research and Surveillance.
“These pigs shouldn’t be at the fairs.”
The virus, an influenza A of the H3N2 family and a distant cousin of human viruses of the same name, was first spotted in humans last summer.
To distinguish between the animal and human viruses, scientists call this H3N2-variant, or H3N2v.
Cases predominantly have cropped up among children who have attended agricultural exhibitions. But health officials in the U.S. have been reluctant to call for the closure of pig barns this fair season.
Asked about the issue on a recent teleconference with the media, a senior influenza scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said a two-pronged strategy was being introduced to try to bring the situation at fairs under control.
The plan: stress hand hygiene among humans and screen pigs at they arrive to weed out evidently unhealthy animals.