SALEM, Ohio — The strain of swine flu suspected of sickening dozens of people in the United States and killing more than 150 in Mexico, known as the H1N1 virus, is a new strain that has never been found in U.S. swine herds.
“Reports indicate that the H1N1 virus in the current outbreak is a recombinant strain that mixed with avian and human flu strains,” said Jacob Werner, who is Penn State’s attending veterinarian for agricultural animals.
“Unlike most swine flu strains, it can be transmitted from person to person, but it’s unclear whether it can pass from people back to pigs. Until we know more, our best advice to producers is to be vigilant and step up your biosecurity.”
Ohio and Pennsylvania swine producers already follow diligent swine production practices to prevent the introduction of disease-causing organisms in their herds.
For consumers concerned about the recent swine influenza outbreaks and their impacts on pork safety, understanding the intensive protocols is important.
“First, it is important to note that the virus has not been isolated in any animals to date,” said Steve Moeller, Ohio State University Extension swine specialist.
“Various forms of swine flu potentially can infect humans, but it is very rare — maybe one or two cases a year in the United States,” Werner said.
He noted that such cases usually are the result of humans coming into close contact with pigs, such as in a barn.
Moeller also emphasized swine influenza viruses are not spread by food; therefore, consumers will not be infected with swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked meat products is safe for the consumer since it kills any flu-related pathogens, the experts said.
Moeller also said it’s critical for consumers to know that pork producers implement extensive biosecurity measures and carry out best management practices to prevent the introduction of disease-causing organisms to their operations.
“These practices protect the pig, the producer and the consumer.”
Moeller said that common biosecurity practices on swine farms include strict control of human, equipment, transportation, vermin and wild animal traffic within the farm.
“Eliminating unnecessary traffic reduces the chance of disease transfer from animal to animal, human to animal, and animal to human, protecting the health of everyone,” he said.
Prevention and control of disease outbreaks also includes a combination of animal care strategies, strict sanitation, and appropriate vaccination schedules that reduce the chance of a disease outbreak.
Common animal care strategies include segregation of animals by age to maintain similarity in immune system function.
“Younger animals, similar to young children, are still developing their immune systems to protect them from disease,” Moeller said.
Through age segregation, livestock and swine producers can limit transfer of disease from other animals, particularly from older to younger animals, he said.
Segregation is often achieved by establishing animal housing facilities that are separated by distances of up to a mile or more if possible.
Proper sanitation is also a primary factor in maintaining healthy animals.
“Manure may harbor microbes and pathogens that can contribute to unhealthy animals. Therefore, livestock producers spend a great deal of time and effort maintaining clean facilities, feed and water for their livestock,” Moeller said.
Attention to the basic needs for food, water and shelter for all animals, including humans, is necessary to maintain health.
“Producers routinely monitor the health of the animals in their herds through direct daily observation of each animal, providing added care to animals with compromised health, as well as oversight of the equipment, feed supply, water supply and environmental conditions to assure the well-being of their animals,” Moeller said.
Swine producers, similar to the general public, rely on vaccination protocols to enhance or eliminate disease introduction, Moeller explained.
“Scientific advances in disease diagnostics, vaccine development and effective vaccination protocols have allowed producers to provide protection to the pig for numerous harmful diseases while simultaneously protecting the health of the caretakers and improving the safety and wholesomeness of the food products at the consumer level,” Moeller said.
There are swine vaccinations to combat the more common strains of swine specific influenza, the expert said. However, the ability of the existing vaccines to prevent the new, multi-component avian, swine, and human variant is not known.
“At this time, it is also not known if this new strain of influenza causes any type of illness in swine. Unfortunately, the flu viruses found in human and animal populations continually adapt and change making vaccine development very challenging.”