by SUSAN MANN
Ontario’s pork producers are holding their breath to see if the case of an Ontario man who became ill from a variant of influenza virus after having close contact with pigs turns into a media feeding frenzy.
Ontario Pork communications and consumer marketing manager Keith Robbins says farmers are wondering if this going “to be another media scare referencing swine flu to H1N1 and that again would impact their prices as it did last time around.”
Robbins was referring to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 where several people around the world died or were sickened by the virus, including several deaths in Ontario.
Dr. Arlene King, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, says in a statement issued Tuesday an Ontario man has a confirmed infection of H1N1 influenza variant virus. He is being treated and closely monitored in a southwestern Ontario hospital.
An influenza virus that normally circulates in animals is referred to as a variant virus when it infects humans, she explains.
“I would like to reassure Ontarians that this variant influenza virus rarely spreads from animals to humans,” King notes. “Subsequently human-to-human transmission is also rare.”
She also pointed out that properly cooked pork continues to be safe to eat. Proper cooking of meats, including pork, kills all bacteria and viruses.
Tori Gass, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, says the man’s condition was listed as critical but stable the last time they checked earlier on Tuesday. No other details, such as the man’s age or where he’s from, are being released.
“We can say he works with livestock, including swine, and that he was exposed to swine in Canada and the United States,” she says. The health ministry is working with Public Health Ontario to investigate where he contracted the virus.
Dr. Greg Douglas, Ontario’s chief veterinarian, says the agriculture ministry’s “early epidemiological assessment” shows no signs of clinical illness in Ontario pigs they’ve assessed from the farm level through the entire system to slaughter.
In Ontario, the surveillance system, which includes swine veterinarians and the Animal Health Lab in Guelph, broadly assesses the swine herd and looks for signs of unusual illness. “We look at what viruses, swine influenza in particular, they may be carrying,” Douglas says. “We do that for swine health reasons but we also try and get a sense whether or not any viruses have changed such that they’re causing disease in the pigs that we wouldn’t expect.”
Douglas says “we don’t know for sure where the worker in question picked up the virus.” And “it’s not clear whether or not the virus was even picked up in Canada.”
A background document included with King’s statement says symptoms of the H1N1 influenza variant virus (H1N1v) are similar to regular influenza, including fever or chills, coughs or shortness of breath, sore throat, body aches, lack of energy, fatigue, headache, with vomiting and diarrhea in some people. Similar to seasonal flu, H1N1v may cause a worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions and may lead to hospitalization and even death.
Robbins says the provincial agriculture ministry asked Ontario Pork on Tuesday morning to issue an industry advisory to pork producers reiterating the need for them to enhance biosecurity measures on their farms. The notice informs producers that people “working with pigs should practice strict biosecurity practices,” he notes.
Robbins says they weren’t given any details about this case other than the man was confirmed with having the H1N1 variant influenza virus.
Douglas says swine influenza viruses circulate widely in the North American swine population. The variant in this case hasn’t yet been detected in Canada but it’s “a very low risk. That said, our messages from 2009 remain in effect today for swine workers.”
Those messages include hand washing is the best infection prevention and control measure against respiratory illnesses, such as influenza. King’s statement says people should wash their hands frequently with soap and running water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water aren’t available.
Douglas agrees that hand washing is the most effective way to prevent communicable diseases, especially if someone is handling sick swine.
Gass says another precaution is to not eat or drink while around swine.
Douglas says people should also get their seasonal flu shot. “We are under the impression that the seasonal flu vaccine is indeed protective.”
People who are sick should avoid contact with animals, particularly pigs. “It’s a matter of protecting the swine as well because swine pick up this virus from humans,” he notes, adding the swine industry should consider requiring workers to wear N95 masks when working with pigs.
King says the identification of this case is the result of the strength of Ontario’s current surveillance system. The Ontario H1N1 variant influenza virus is not an unexpected occurrence and there have been a number of human infections with variant influenza viruses in the Untied States during the past year.
Gass says Dr. Arlene King decided to issue a statement because this is the first case of the H1N1 variant and it’s reportable disease to the World Health Organization. “She felt it was important to put the message out there.” BF