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H1N1 swine flu detected in 3 pigs at Minnesota State Fair

Infection could be first among U.S. animals; experts cite a new concern but say food safe

By Tom Webb | Pioneer Press

Three pigs exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair this summer tested positive for the H1N1 virus, a preliminary result Friday that if confirmed would mark the first time the worrisome virus has been found in U.S. animals.

State officials tried to allay concern, saying the spread was expected, given the deep inroads the H1N1 virus has made into the human population. Health officials stressed that human-to-human transmission is the real battleground in the pandemic.

Still, the results spark a new worry — that the virus could mutate into a more deadly form as it moves between species.

"There's no evidence there's a change in the virus, but that is a concern," said Dr. Joni Scheftel, public health veterinarian with the Minnesota Department of Health.

The H1N1 virus already had been found in swine in Canada, Argentina, Ireland and elsewhere, but not in the United States.

The infected pigs were tested during research in the State Fair's swine barn, between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the animals "showed no signs of illness and were apparently healthy."

State officials suspect the pigs caught the virus from fairgoers, although they can't be sure. The animals each had a different owner and were tested on different days.

Because the tests were confidential, not even the farmers have been notified which animals were infected, said Jeff Bender of the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

The swine research involved the U, the University of Iowa, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, it seems likely the infected animals were sent to slaughter, the typical pattern, said Gene Hugoson, Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture.

When asked whether the public should be concerned about that, Hugoson said: "Not to my way of thinking."

He added, "There is absolutely no food safety risk from eating any kind of pork that has been contaminated with H1N1. ... Any pig that would exhibit any kind of health indications would not be accepted for slaughter."

During the Fair, a group of 4-H students became ill with the H1N1 flu, but the USDA said Friday that "information available at this time would suggest the children were not sickened by contact with the Fair pigs."

The students were mostly involved in the performing arts and ambassador program — not the livestock programs. Fair officials ordered more than 100 teens to return home early after four of them had confirmed infections and several others reported flu-like symptoms.

The USDA is awaiting confirmation of the Minnesota swine tests and should get results "within the next few days," the department said.

"Like people, swine routinely get sick or contract influenza viruses," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. He, too, noted that the virus couldn't be spread by eating pork.

The new strain of H1N1 has been linked to seven deaths and nearly 500 hospitalizations in Minnesota since it emerged in the spring.

While human health has been the paramount concern during the H1N1 outbreak, the illness's early moniker of "swine flu" has hurt the pork industry. A number of global trading partners have refused to buy U.S. pork products, which has especially hurt Minnesota, the nation's No. 3 pork-producing state.

Jeremy Olson contributed to this report. Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428.

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