ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Some pigs may be cute enough to kiss - but with swine flu cases on the rise, people may want to think twice while visiting livestock barns during local county fairs.
In fact, to ward off the possible spread of the flu, called the H3N2 virus, hand sanitizer stations will be available during the upcoming Belmont County Fair - Sept. 4-9 at the fairgrounds on Roscoe Road, St. Clairsville - and at the Ohio County Country Fair, slated for Oct. 5-7 at Oglebay Park.
Health officials want people to be especially vigilant because of recent cases of people catching the virus from infected pigs at other fairs across the state of Ohio.
Belmont County Sanitarian Rob Sproul said there will be pigs exhibited at the Belmont County Fair this year.
"The show will go on," he said, noting people will not be permitted to take food or beverages into the animal areas - a standard practice.
While no one has died from this particular virus being spread at state fairs, people infected by it have exhibited flu symptoms and some were hospitalized.
"There's no human-to-human transmission," Sproul said of the current state of the virus.
He added the health department is involved with the fair every year because of food service inspections, but the swine flu concern has added another layer of responsibility.
A local veterinarian, Dr. Harold Kemp, annually checks the animals as they enter the fair. And the state of Ohio sometimes sends a veterinarian, too.
"They check them when they come into the fair and monitor them during the fair," Sproul said.
John Miller, agent for the West Virginia University Extension Service's Ohio County office, said the Ohio County Country Fair does not host pigs every year as there are no pig farmers in the county. The fair's livestock tent is more for viewing and not selling because it is not attached to any 4-H competition, he added.
"We have pigs just so people can see what pigs look like," Miller said. "Some years we have pigs, some we don't. ... Pigs aren't pets - you don't pet them anyway."
Much like the Belmont County Fair, Miller said Ohio County's livestock tent also has hand sanitizer dispensers recommended for use after visiting the animals. And for those who accidentally get dirt or other matter on their hands, there is a restroom located in a building on the grounds where people can wash their hands with soap and water.
"We preach biosecurity to our clients all the time," Miller noted. "People don't understand that animals get viruses that humans can get as well. ... Make sure you follow the proper precautions."
According to information from the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, West Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Marian Swinker recommends those with a high risk of developing serious complications from exposure to the flu - such as children 5 years old and younger, the elderly, pregnant women and those with comprised immune systems - may want to avoid contact with pigs all together. This year's seasonal flu vaccine will not protect against this particular strain of virus, but health officials recommend people receive it to build immunity against other flu viruses.
"We will not be surprised to identify more cases of H3N2 in West Virginia as surveillance efforts to detect this illness have increased. CDC has not reported ongoing community human-to-human transmission with this virus, however, limited human-to-human transmission with H3N2 has been seen in the past and could occur again. All the cases of H3N2 infection identified since July 2012 confirmed by CDC have had exposure to swine. So preventive actions are key," Swinker said.
Gerald Campbell, president of the Belmont County Agricultural Society, recently met with members of the county fair board and Sproul to discuss the fair and swine flu.
"The Belmont County Fair is working closely with our fair veterinarian ... and the Belmont County Health Department as to the monitoring of the H3N2 virus and the swine shown and sold at the fair. This virus is a direct-contact virus that does not affect the quality of the market animal," Campbell said.
"Our board has precautionary steps in place to quarantine suspected animals until further testing and results are confirmed. This is a very low-incidence virus in the swine population. Although statistically the odds of having an outbreak are small, we are taking all the necessary steps to protect the public's health during the fair.
"Better education regarding the nature of influenza viruses and how to prevent infection, along with stepped up efforts to keep sick pigs from agricultural fairs, are the best ways to minimize risk of human disease and any potentially adverse impacts on the country's pork industry. The most important things to remember are to wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer and no food or drinks in the barns," he added.