WATERFORD - The hog sale is the centerpiece of the annual Waterford Community Fair, and that's not expected to change when it kicks off Thursday, despite reports of multiple cases of humans catching a mild strain of swine flu from hogs at a pair of fairs in Ohio.
The Cuyahoga County Fair has canceled all swine-related exhibits in the wake of an Ohio Department of Health announcement that 15 human cases of the H3N2 virus had been confirmed - 14 related to the Butler County Fair and one contracted by a Clark County resident at the Ohio State Fair.
Last Wednesday, the state Health Department announced an additional 15 cases had been confirmed, with two more each in Butler and Clark counties, along with four in Gallia, four in Greene and four in Hamilton County. Those affected have been between 6 months and 36 years old.
Only one of those cases resulted in hospitalization, and that was primarily as a precaution, the individual having since been released, according to a release from ODH.
"There has been a tremendous increase in surveillance across the state," Dr. Ted Wymyslo, ODH director, said in the release. "We are not surprised by this increase in confirmed cases. We are also aware the flu viruses are not uncommon in swine. Even as we identify additional illnesses, this strain appears to remain mild and does not seem to be any more severe than what we see during most flu seasons."
It is not considered as serious as the H1N1 virus that caused national concern a few years ago, a pandemic that was primarily transmitted between humans despite being widely referred to as "swine flu."
The Health Department is recommending that local health departments work with agriculture and fair officials to post necessary signage and ensure care is taken to prevent further transmission, but isn't suggesting the cancellation of events.
"It's something that is really up to the local community," said ODH spokeswoman Tess Pollack.
Retired Fort Frye High School ag teacher Ralph Coffman said he has no reservations about his grandchildren showing hogs or about attending the fair, which runs from Thursday through Aug. 20.
"I have full confidence that the fair vets will monitor the situation appropriately," he said.
Phil Lowe, who serves as fair veterinarian for the Waterford, Barlow and Washington County fairs, said he's required to walk through the animal barns each day and check any animal that has symptoms of a potentially contagious condition. If such a condition is diagnosed, the animal is removed.
Most of the time, the concern is for transmission between animals, Lowe said. Ringworm is probably the most common condition transmitted from animals to people at fairs.
Lowe said the extreme heat this summer is likely contributing to the cases of H3N2 reported so far. The additional heat stress is affecting the animals' immune systems.
"It's making them more susceptible to transmit the virus," he said. "Their immune system normally would take care of it."
Pollack said most of the cases reported have involved people with "very close contact with the swine," such as exhibitors. Strategies for preventing the transmission are the same people are used to hearing when it comes to halting the spread of disease between humans.
"We say this all the time, but it holds true - wash your hands with soap and water," she said.
That goes for keeping humans from spreading the virus to animals as well, Pollack said.
People shouldn't be eating in the animal areas either, Lowe said, noting that, like the hand-washing, is common sense.
"Don't be walking through the barn petting animals with one hand and eating a hamburger with the other," he said.
Vulnerable populations like pregnant women, people over 65, young children and people with compromised immune systems should take extra care, Pollack said.
A joint release from the state Departments of Health and Agriculture says ODA is working with its industry partners to increase the number of hand sanitation stations available at county fairs, as well as public education efforts. The agency also indicated it plans to instruct fair veterinarians to post signage for exhibitors and the visiting public related to preventive measures.
Waterford Fair Board member Charlie Campbell, a longtime hog farmer, said he thinks additional signage would only "stir everybody up." He's skeptical of the reports that people have actually been sickened as a result of contact with swine.
"If they had, I (would have) had it years ago," he said. "I think it's all a bunch of poppycock."
That doesn't mean Campbell, who is on the committee overseeing the hog sale, doesn't take those common-sense steps like frequent hand-washing and not eating in animal areas.
"Anybody in their right mind would," he said.
Lowe noted there are hand sanitizer stations set up around the barn each year, even when swine flu cases haven't been reported.
Mark Landefeld, agriculture extension agent with The Ohio State University Extension in Monroe County, said hand sanitizers have always been present in animal venues at the Monroe County Fair as well. While folks there are aware of the reports, he said there's been no discussion about canceling any swine events.