STATE — Officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are warning of a new strain of swine flu – H3N2 – that appears to be circulating around fairgrounds and spreading rapidly.
The CDC reported last Thursday that the number of cases nationwide had jumped from 29 to 165 within a week.
The CDC reports that transmission of H3N2 is the result of human–pig contact at agricultural fairs. The center has been tracking the new strain since last summer.
While 165 may not seem like a significant number, 113 of the recent cases were reported in Indiana; 30 in Ohio; one in Hawaii and one in Illinois.
There were two confirmed cases of H3N2 in Maine in 2011 but no new cases have been detected this year, according to Maine CDC Director Dr. Sheila Pinette.
"They were fine and never hospitalized," Dr. Pinette reported Monday.
Dr. Pinette says recent cases of H3N2 have been generally consistent with symptoms of the seasonal flu and include fever, cough, pharyngitis, myalgia and headache.
One concern the CDC has is that the new strain includes a gene from the 2009 H1N1 flu virus, which means the flu has the potential to spread more easily than normal.
"The vaccine of H1N1 that we've been giving out over the last two years will not cover it," says Dr. Pinette, "so there is a vaccine presently under development – however, there is no recommendation for widespread use of it at this time because the numbers, even though they exist, are not that high [in Maine.]"
While Maine hasn't been hard hit with the virus, the potential is there, says Dr. Pinette. As public health and agricultural officials continue to investigate the extent of the disease among humans and swine additional cases are likely to be identified, she says.
"In Maine, we haven't seen it yet [this year], but it is increasing across the nation, so we do anticipate that it will increase in numbers," says Dr. Pinette.
"We need to be cognizant that it's out there, especially when Maine starts to have all [its] wonderful fairs."
However, the CDC reported so far the flu has mild symptoms and is luckily not spreading from human to human – and fortunately, no one has died from the new strain.
"This year, there have been no human to human cases noted," says Dr. Pinette, "although they [can] occur and are rare."
Instead, the virus is only spread from pig to human – so if you're heading to any fairs this season, you may want to keep a distance from the pigs, especially ones that are sneezing, have a runny nose or have watery eyes, Dr. Pinette recommends.
Ninety percent of cases involve children under five years old, says Dr. Pinette.
The CDC also warns that pregnant women and seniors older than 65 be extra careful as they, like children, are more susceptible to serious complications of the flu.
Those with underlying chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or neurological conditions are also at high-risk, says Dr. Pinette.
While Maine's state fair in Bangor ended August 5, it doesn't mean H3N2 isn't circulating the state – the CDC reports that it's not just happening at state fairs; most cases reported in Indiana were all related to county fairs.
While no cases have been reported in Oxford County, the Oxford County Fair is approaching, and like most agricultural fairs, there will be pigs present that could be infected, says Dr. Pinette.
"We really want people to make sure that when they go into the livestock pens that they are talking to the owners and making sure the [animals] are healthy and that they get permission to pet the animals," Dr. Pinette explains.
Because the flu vaccine doesn't protect against H3N2, the CDC suggests washing your hands after handling farm animals and not to eat or drink in any location where farm animals are present to avoid contracting the new swine flu.
"After [people] pet the animals, we want to make sure they wash their hands especially before they eat," says Dr. Pinette.
Most importantly, steer clear of any animals that appear sick.
In addition, if owners of livestock think their pigs are sick "they should probably be consulting their veterinarian," says Dr. Pinette.
According to Dr. Pinette, flu viruses have not been shown to be transmissible to people through eating properly-handled and prepared pork or other products derived from pigs.
"It's not caused by eating pork," she explains. "It's a respiratory disease, so it's passed by nasal droplet, so anything like touching or going into a space with pigs, you could get it."
Dr. Pinette recommends patients who experience flu-like symptoms following direct contact with swine to immediately inform their health care provider.
"Most importantly, we want people to go the fairs, have fun, support local agriculture, and just be cognizant of the fact it [swine flu] is out there," she says.