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Swine Flu and the Unexpected Place You Could Catch It

Washing your hands is important after visiting animal exhibits


In this area, there’s no shortage of community festivals with ample opportunities to see farm animals. From cows to sheep to pigs, fairs and fests often include a petting zoo for kids and adults to touch their favorite animals while enjoying their outing. The pig pen is a popular spot, but it can also lead to illness – specifically, the swine flu virus, known as H1N1. In 2019, pigs in Michigan tested positive for swine flu.

“Animal exhibits can be very fun and educational for visitors of all ages, but we must be careful to ensure that visitors and exhibit animals remain safe and healthy,” says John Zerfass, PA-C with LVPG Family Medicine-Nazareth.

While rare, it’s important to know that if you plan to touch any animals, you’re putting yourself and others at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 2010-2015, about 100 outbreaks of illness in people linked to animals in public settings like zoos, fairs, and educational farms were reported to public health officials.

What is swine flu?

Swine flu is a subtype of influenza A virus, which usually causes upper respiratory tract infections. Other symptoms include nasal secretions, chills, fever, decreased appetite, and possibly lower respiratory tract disease. There are different types of the virus, but the most common is the H1N1 influenza virus.

It usually takes between 1-4 days for the virus to fully incubate before you start experiencing symptoms. (But you may be contagious for as long as one day before you have any symptoms.) If you have a normal immune system, you’ll likely experience symptoms between 3-7 days, and up to 2 weeks in patients with a weakened immune system.

How does it spread?

“The way that these illnesses typically spread is very similar to how humans spread flu to each other,” says Zerfass. “We either come into direct contact with the flu when touching the animal and then touch our eyes, nose or mouth without properly washing our hands with running water and soap or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, or through airborne droplets released when the animal barks or coughs.”

Who is at risk for getting sick?

“The same at-risk populations for contracting the human flu are at risk for swine flu; children under 5 years old, adults over 65 years old, pregnant women, people with chronic heart and/or lung diseases, diabetes, those with active cancer, or people with compromised immune systems,” Zerfass says. “People in each of these populations should avoid direct contact with exhibit animals, or at least spend as little time in exhibits.”

How can you protect yourself?

Here are three important safety tips for keeping yourself and your kids healthy:

1. Wash your hands

Wash hands with running water and soap, and/or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after visiting all animal exhibits, even if you didn’t directly have contact the animals.

2. Leave your food and drink behind

“Do not eat or drink anything when around exhibit animals. And do not share your food with animals,” says Zerfass. “Also, do not eat or drink any unpasteurized products that may be sold at fairs.”

3. Take extra precautions with kids

“Children must always be supervised when around animals,” Zerfass says. “Do not bring items such as strollers, pacifiers, cups, toys, etc., into the exhibit. And do not let children sit or play on the ground in the exhibit areas. Teach children to approach all animals with caution, never placing their fingers near an animal’s mouth.”

When should you seek treatment?

ExpressCARE and primary care providers can evaluate patients with these types of complaints,” says Zerfass, “Many patients will recover from these illnesses without prescription medications, depending on the patient’s past medical history.” Testing for these types of flu virus variants can be completed in ExpressCARE locations, either through Rapid Influenza testing units or by sending a sample to the lab for more detailed evaluation.

 If a patient’s symptoms are severe, and the provider is concerned for serious complications that need care that is beyond what we are able to provide in clinic, they may be referred to a local emergency department for further evaluation and treatment,” says Zerfass. If you or your child is experiencing flu-like symptoms after visiting a fair exhibit, it’s important to inform your care provider of your exposure to animals.

“Please be sure to inform your health care provider about exposure to farm animals or consumption of unpasteurized materials to aid in the diagnosis of one of these illnesses,” says Zerfass, “Many providers may ask about these types of exposures, but any specific history details that patients can provide is helpful.”

Treatment can include influenza antiviral drugs. Your health care provider will best determine the type of treatment you need after testing and evaluation. 

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