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Farmers Work to Protect Pigs From Swine Flu

By Bill Tomson | The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Hogs aren't spreading swine flu but they can catch it from people, requiring farmers to take extra care this fall and winter to prevent humans from sneezing on their livestock.

Because no vaccine has been developed yet to protect hog herds, the emphasis by producers will be on getting vaccinations for farm workers, veterinarians and others who come into contact with the animals.

It is "not so much to protect the workers, but to protect the pigs from the workers," said Jennifer Greiner, director for science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council.

Farmers would prefer, however, to vaccinate the pigs rather than the humans around them, Ms. Greiner said, but that isn't yet possible despite the efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service.

The agency's scientists haven't been able to develop a viable pig vaccine for the new swine flu, known as A/H1N1, according to an agency memo obtained by Dow Jones Newswires, although they are still "evaluating an experimental vaccine."

The government also has shared samples of the swine-flu virus with private drug companies in the hopes that they will produce a vaccine. Neither Ms. Greiner nor USDA officials believe success will come in time for this year's flu season.

Development of the vaccine isn't expected until well into winter, USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said.

That is bad news say industry and government officials because the hype surrounding this virus has hurt the pork business since April, and it could do further damage this fall when the flu season starts.

If pigs start getting sick, pork sales could take a hit even though there is no danger of meat contamination, USDA chief veterinarian John Clifford said.

The A/H1N1 virus was dubbed swine flu because it is an H1N1 type that traditionally has been found in pigs, but this particular strain contains swine, avian and human viral genes.

Pigs have contracted the virus, but for the most part it has been spread human to human. The first confirmed cases of the swine flu in pigs were found in Canada in early May and they got sick from exposure to an infected farm worker.

U.S. health and agriculture officials have repeatedly tried to assure consumers here and abroad that this "novel" H1N1 virus can't be transmitted in pork, but Mr. Clifford said there is still a danger to swine producers from baseless fear.

USDA scientists tried to detect the virus in pork produced from an infected pig, but couldn't find it, according to the Agriculture Research Service memo.

"The virus has only been isolated from the respiratory tract and not from other tissues," according to the document. "The virus was not isolated in meat and therefore the novel H1N1 is not a food safety issue."

Despite the science, meatpackers may still refuse to buy pork from a swine operation at which the H1N1 virus has been detected, Mr. Clifford said. That concern has the USDA reaching out to processors and producers.

The USDA needs processors to keep buying swine in order to keep business flowing, but the agency also needs farmers to overcome the fear of stigma and report illnesses in their herds if they find them.

The flu isn't a "reportable" livestock illness, meaning farmers aren't compelled to tell the government if they find it, as opposed to a disease like foot-and-mouth.

If they report finding flu symptoms, veterinarians will be able to quickly tell if it is the new flu that has killed more than a thousand people world-wide, thanks to the work of USDA researchers.

The USDA's Mr. Clifford said the swine-flu virus is virulent, but not potent enough to kill the pigs nor mobile enough to jump easily from one herd to the next. He said close surveillance is necessary "because of the possibility that the virus could change into something more dangerous to swine."

Write to Bill Tomson at [email protected]

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