Illinois State Fair taking steps to stop spread of new swine flu

Illinois State Fair organizers are equipping the Springfield fairgrounds with extra hand-washing stations and cautionary signs to keep an emerging swine flu strain at bay.

State public health officials on Thursday confirmed Illinois' first case, a child who picked up influenza A variant H3N2 after visiting the Coles County Fair last week. The case is one of at least 146 nationwide, with the bulk coming from Indiana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Besides adding extra hygienic measures near animal exhibits, fair organizers are reviewing the list of participants from Coles County in central Illinois and keeping an extra watchful eye on their livestock, including pigs, said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the state's Department of Agriculture, which runs the state fair.

"There's no reason to do anything drastic," said Squibb, adding that veterinarians have not found any animals with flu-like symptoms. "Animals get sick just like people do."

The novel strain picked up steam over the last week, when the national tally jumped from 29 to 146 cases this year, said Dr. Joseph Bresee of CDC's influenza division. About 90 percent of those infected are children, and most of the cases are mild, he said.

Bresee said he expects more cases to pop up over the next few weeks as people flock to agricultural fairs around the country. So far this year the disease has been spread by pigs, which are frequently infected with influenza, experts said.

Though the H3N2 strain might sound strange, it's not very different from the seasonal flu, said Dr. Gail Scherba, a professor of virology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Pigs pick up the virus from their environment and spread it among each other, especially when their immune systems are weakened by travel and hot weather, Scherba said. They can pass it to humans by coughing or sneezing, but people have to be close to the animals for the virus to spread, she added.

"It's not that bad if people take proper precautions," she said, such as hand-washing and keeping food and drink away from areas with pigs.

The child from Coles County has not been hospitalized, but the CDC is doing further testing, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health. She declined to release additional information, citing confidentiality.

Arnold urged the public to get flu vaccinations, saying the H1N1 vaccine people might have gotten in the past does not protect against the newest strain. The federal government is looking at developing a vaccine for this A variant but has not yet done so, she said.

Neighboring state fairs are taking similar precautions against the swine flu. For example, the Wisconsin State Fair has added extra hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations even though H3N2 hasn't been confirmed in the state.

In Indiana, state fair officials tested about 2,000 pigs before the event began after area county fairs saw influenza in some swine, said spokesman Andy Klotz. Cases of the new strain have jumped tenfold in the Hoosier State — from 11 to 120, according to the Indiana State Department of Health — in less than a week.

Though all the pigs tested healthy, six were later found with high fevers, prompting the fair to send most of the swine home.

Squibb said that many times it's the animals' handlers or others who frequently touch the livestock who get infected. People generally will be fine if they wash their hands and are careful around animals.

"It's basic personal hygiene that we probably should be doing as a matter of practice anyway," Squibb said.

jmdelgado@tribune.com

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