Could the Next Pandemic Start at the County Fair?

It was just showtime for the youth pig exhibition, and the pigsty was bustling with people. Contestants between the ages of 3 and 21 practiced their walks in preparation for the show ring and brushed their hog hairs to keep them in place. Parents would braid their children’s hair and wear ribbons and pig-shaped barrettes.

Dr. Andrew Bowman, a molecular epidemiologist at Ohio State University, was walking around the barn in green, waterproof overalls looking for a swine runny nose. As he slipped into the cage, one of the pigs snorted and tried to escape and began to gnaw at his shoelaces.

Dr. Bowman said he didn’t want to go inside the cage, wiping the animal’s nose with gauze. He soon found a more attractive subject. It’s a pig sticking its nose out between the fences of the pen. “We have a complete bias against sticking noses,” he said. Later, back in the lab, Dr. Bowman and his colleagues discovered that several snouts snorting around this crowded barn in New Lexington, Ohio, had the flu.

The world is at least coming out of a deadly pandemic 6.9 million people. It’s not the last. Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases that can spread between animals and humans have become more frequent in recent decades, and animal pathogens will continue to spread to the human population in the years to come. To Americans, contagion may seem like a distant problem, a danger lurking in places like the live animal market in Wuhan, China, which may have been the root of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Here in the United States, I think there’s a sense that the disease came from somewhere else,” says Ann Linder, associate director of the Animal Law Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

But our backyards—and barnyards—are at real risk. Since 2011, the United States has confirmed more human cases of swine flu than anywhere else in the world. (It may be because other countries are not doing much testing and surveillance, experts say, because many cases at home and abroad are likely to go undetected.) Most of them are associated with agricultural shows and exhibitions. “They’ve become kind of hotspots,” Linder says.

Swine flu is often mild, but these animals are notorious for causing strains of H1N1 influenza. In 2009, one of these new variants from pigs in Mexico caused a pandemic and deaths. at least 150,000according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s just the flu, what’s the problem?'” Dr. Bowman says. “If there is another pandemic, it will be really bad.”

Dr. Bowman and his colleagues have spent more than a decade documenting its dangers and seeking ways to make pig shows safer. To meaningfully reduce risk, we need to look beyond pigs to organisms on the other side of the spillover equation. “So many human behaviors” need to change, Dr. Bowman says.

Swine play an important role in the evolution of influenza. They can be simultaneously infected with swine, avian, and human influenza viruses, acting as mixing vessels in which different strains reshuffle their genetic material to produce new versions of the virus.

When the swine flu pandemic broke out in 2009, influenza surveillance in pigs was limited, said Dr. Bowman, who was a practicing veterinarian at the time. But the outbreak was so eye-opening that Dr. Bowman, who attended veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, returned to college and worked with one of his former professors on a pig surveillance project.

They began collecting pig swabs at pig fairs and eventually uncovered a nationwide network of events that caused human infections in predictable annual cycles.

Local and national “jackpot” shows, which begin each spring, attract serious swine competitors, attracting pigs from faraway farms and causing strains of swine flu to spread across the country.

In the summer and fall, far more children take pigs to county and state fairs. At least one pig tested positive for influenza at about 25% of the shows, the researchers said, suggesting that influenza tends to spread widely. “By the end of the fair, 200 pigs will be shedding flu virus,” Dr. Bowman said.

At trade fairs, large numbers of people come into close contact with pigs. “Kids are petting and touching the pigs and eating cotton candy, hot dogs and finger foods at the same time,” Linder said.

S.Pillow fights are not uncommon. In 2012, an outbreak of swine flu resulted in more than 300 confirmed human infections.Dr. Bowman and his colleagues found the evidence The virus has passed from pigs to humans at least seven Ohio shows. “The idea that we’re seeing it in front of us over and over was pretty amazing,” said Dr. Bowman.

In the years that followed, researchers worked to determine what was making these shows endangered.At most trade fairs they hand hygiene station, few had signs explaining how to use them. And almost no one did.

They also documented the risks associated with a standard weighing procedure in which pigs are placed nose-to-tail on a scale one by one. In the process, many pigs pressed their noses against the vertical sorting panels used to keep the animals in place, so one infected pig may become infected. contaminate common surfaces. “The result is an acceleration of infection,” says Dr. Bowman. “One pig for everyone in line behind you.”

The researchers, who shared their findings with show organizers and health officials, said they had seen some changes, including many shows eliminating compulsory mass weighing.

Some big shows and fairs, which traditionally last a week, have also started sending most of the pigs home. 72 hours later. This timeline means that the infected pigs at the show will disappear before they start shedding the virus. “There is no publicly displayed virus that can infect other animals or humans,” Dr. Bowman said.

Still, not all shows were open to such top-down changes. So the Ohio State team is also working bottom-up.

When there were no competitions, many of the children who attended the New Lexington show wandered into the barns where local artisans and groups peddled their wares. At the booth near the entrance, there was a booth in which a cartoon pig in a white coat invited children to the “Swientist Institute”, and it was a great success.

When a group of three preteens approached, Jacqueline Nolting, a researcher and educator on the Ohio State University team, challenged them to test their handwashing skills. She instructed them to rub the clear gel into their hands and wash them thoroughly. She then took out a black light and she told me that the remaining traces of gel glowed. Six hands glowed.

“Oh, it’s full of germs!” she cried. “In the knuckle gap — do you know how it got in the knuckle gap?”

This activity is the mainstay of the Swientist program, which the team began developing in 2015 to teach young exhibitors how to keep their pigs and themselves healthy. At the New Lexington show, program leader Dr. Nolting also encouraged children to practice donning and donning personal protective equipment and gifted them backpacks packed with activities such as a biosecurity scavenger hunt. (For those who complete 7 activities, he will be given an iPad by lottery.)

The researchers are regulars at pig fairs across the country, and their attendance serves two purposes. One is to wipe more pigs and monitor the virus, and the other is to teach children the basics of biosecurity to stop the spread of infection.

Rob McCurry, of Circleville, Ohio, said the first thing his five-year-old twins want to do at the show is see what activities the Swientist team offers. “They are looking forward to it,” he said. (And they seem to be paying attention. When one of the family’s pigs got sick this spring, one of the twins announced that the animal needed to be quarantined.)

But the success didn’t come overnight, and some families were initially wary of the Ohio State University researchers. “Like, ‘They’re after me and they think my pigs are sick,'” Kelly Morgan said. He manages OH-PIGS, the pig show circuit in Ohio. “We had to build trust first.”

Scientists shared the data with exhibitors, reassured them they weren’t “just there to poke and poke and catch,” Bowman said. They marketed themselves as partners with common goals.

“They gave us some great tips and great ideas for keeping our pig herd healthy,” said Lindsay Caldwell of Leesburg, Ohio, where her two daughters raise pigs. For example, Caldwell said the family advised her to change or disinfect her shoes after returning from the show and to quarantine the participating pigs.

Her 16-year-old daughter Maddie also shares some of these lessons with her peers in her farming class. And despite her fear of needles, Maddy was one of the children who provided blood samples to the researchers, who are also collecting nasal swabs from young exhibitors in hopes of learning how often they are exposed to the flu and what their immune systems are like.

“I mainly take swabs to see if I can get sick,” says Ruth Ann Carity, 15, a pig exhibitor in Minster, Ohio. “I just want to know.”

Still, there are some health recommendations, including advice to avoid. eat and drink Sales were difficult around animals. For many families, sharing a meal at the show is a way of building community, and some even bring crockpots to the barn. And for an all-day show, Morgan says it can be essential. “I mean, you have to feed the children, otherwise they will be very hungry.”

Ultimately, the Ohio State team decided to relax the nomination, concerned that it would undermine credibility because it was too culturally incompatible. (It’s also not clear how much food or drink increases the risk for people who already spend hours sharing air with pigs, Dr. Nolting conceded.)

It is difficult to judge how effective the team’s efforts were as a whole. Surveillance is still fairly new, and some flu seasons are naturally worse than others. “But I think we moved the needle,” Dr. Bowman said. “Change is happening.”

Pigs aren’t the only livestock that can carry dangerous pathogens, so researchers recently launched an educational program for people buying chicks at farmers’ markets. They may also create a cattle-focused program, Dr. Nolting said.

“We’ve been talking about what it would be like if the logo was ‘Swientist and Friends,'” Dr Nolting said. “Maybe our pig in white has a companion.”

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