Once again, the county fairs are in full swing. As in previous years, our practice is busy visiting many of the pigs, steers, sheep, goats and dairy cattle that will be shown at the Somerset County fair this year. There is a welcome change this year for the veterinarians examining the hogs that will be on display.
Since I moved to Somerset County 10 years ago, every fair season we would have to collect blood samples from the hogs to test them for a disease called pseudorabies. Pseudorabies is a contagious viral disease of pigs that causes devastating economic losses in swine farms. It is completely unrelated to the rabies virus that we vaccinate our pets against and it poses essentially no human health danger.
We haven't seen a case of pseudorabies in Pennsylvania domestic swine since 2002. Even though Somerset County never saw a case, I remember that outbreak particularly well. Just prior to the outbreak in 2002, the requirement to blood test all market swine destined for the fair was dropped. Pennsylvania had been considered free from the disease for years and had only tested the market swine destined for the fair out of an abundance of caution.
This new rule resulted in much joy amongst the veterinarians since we no longer had to snare and bleed hundreds of pigs. Our exuberance changed to disappointment in the middle of July that year when it was announced that a swine herd in Pennsylvania had tested positive for the pseudorabies virus. The rule to bleed fair pigs was reinstated and once again we had no reprieve from the annual ritual of bleeding fair pigs.
So, when the announcement was made earlier this summer that the pseudorabies testing requirement was again being dropped, my initial excitement was tempered with the memory of 2002. At last, the fair starts this weekend and there's been no word of a pseudorabies outbreak in the state. I think we might be almost out of the woods.
Despite the pseudorabies success, the fair pigs are still creating some headaches this year. There have been several reports of swine influenza infections in people in contact with swine at county fairs in the Midwest. PETA, the notorious anti-agriculture animal rights group, has pounced on the situation. The press release they sent out warns people to "pass these cruel and dangerous exhibits by."
It should come as no surprise that the people who are at highest risk of catching influenza from a pig are the very people who are showing the pigs. Spectators are pretty unlikely to contract an infection just by visiting the livestock barns. Influenza infections in people that originate from another species are called variant influenza infections. While these variant influenza infections are quite difficult to catch, it would still be wise, however, for people visiting the barns at the fair to use common sense. Take some simple precautions like washing hands after visiting the barns and before eating.
The veterinarians with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture are taking the potential of variant swine influenza seriously. Department personnel have been visiting the county fairs and are actively monitoring for any pigs that may be infected with the influenza virus.
The fair starts this weekend in Meyersdale and scores of proud young people will have their animals on display in hopes of winning a blue ribbon. If you get the chance, stop by the livestock barns and get an appreciation for their hard work. Just be sure you wash your hands before eating that funnel cake.
(Dr. Bill Croushore is a veterinarian with White Oak Veterinary Clinic in Berlin, and services farms in Somerset, Bedford, Westmoreland and Fayette counties. If you have a question for the veterinarian, send it to email@example.com.)