It was show time at the young swine exhibition, and the pig barn was bustling. Competitors ranging in age from 3 to 21 were practicing their tricks for the show ring and cleaning pig hairs all over the place. Parents were braiding children’s hair, adding ribbons and pig-shaped barrettes.
Dr. Andrew Bowman, a molecular epidemiologist at Ohio State University, was walking around a barn in waterproof green overalls, looking for swine snot. As he entered a pen, a pig tried to get out, then gnawed at his shoelaces.
Dr. Bowman prefers not to enter the enclosure, he said, as he wiped the gauze on the animal’s nose. He soon noticed a more fascinating subject: a pig sticking its nose out between the bars of its enclosure. “We have an absolute bias towards muzzle-out,” he said. Later, back in the lab, Dr. Bowman and his colleagues learned that influenza was occurring in several muzzles living around this busy barn in New Lexington, Ohio.
The world is emerging from a pandemic that has killed the least number of people 6.9 million People. This won’t be the last. Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, which can spread between animals and humans, have occurred more frequently in recent decades, and animal pathogens will continue to spread to human populations in the coming years. To Americans, spillover may seem like a distant problem, a threat that lives on in places like the live animal market in Wuhan, China, which may have been the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there’s a real feeling here in America that the disease is something that comes from somewhere else,” said Ann Linder, associate director of the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School.
But there is a real risk in our own backyards and barns. Since 2011, there have been more confirmed human cases of swine flu in the United States than anywhere else in the world. (This may be because other countries are doing less testing and surveillance, and many cases here and abroad are likely to go undetected, experts say.) Most are linked to agricultural shows and fairs. “They have become kind of hot spots,” Ms. Linder said.
Although the flu in pigs is often mild, the animals are notorious for giving rise to new flu variants. In 2009, one of these new strains, which originated in pigs in Mexico, caused an epidemic that killed several people. at least 150,000 peopleAccording to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s just the flu, what’s the big deal?'” Dr. Bowman said. “If this is the next pandemic, it’s really, really bad.”
For more than a decade, Dr. Bowman and his colleagues have been documenting the dangers and finding ways to make swine shows safer. To meaningfully reduce the risks will require attention to the creatures on the other side of the spillover equation, from pigs. Dr. Bowman said that what needs to change is “a terrible form of human behavior.”
Pigs play an important role in the development of influenza. They can be simultaneously infected with swine, bird and human flu viruses, acting as mixing vessels in which different strains can shuffle their genetic material, generating new variants of the virus.
When the swine flu pandemic struck in 2009, influenza surveillance in pigs was limited, said Dr. Bowman, who was a veterinarian at the time. But the outbreak was an eye-opener, and Dr. Bowman, who attended Ohio State’s veterinary school, returned to the university to work on a swine surveillance project with one of his former professors.
He began cleaning pigs at swine shows, eventually uncovering a national network of events that resulted in human infections in an estimated annual cycle.
Every spring, regional and national “jackpot” shows that attract serious swine competitors, bringing together pigs from far-flung farms, spread new flu variants across the country.
In the summer and fall, a great number of children bring their pigs to county or state fairs. The researchers found that at about 25 percent of fairs, at least one pig tested positive for the flu, which spreads widely. “By the end of the fair,” Dr. Bowman said, “you have 200 pigs spreading the influenza virus.”
Large crowds of people at fairs also come in close contact with pigs. “There the kids pet and touch the pigs and also eat cotton candy and hot dogs and finger foods,” Ms. Linder said.
SShooting is not a rare occurrence. In 2012, a major outbreak of swine flu resulted in over 300 confirmed human cases; Dr. Bowman and his associates found evidence The virus was spread from pigs to people during at least seven different Ohio fairs. “The idea that we were seeing it in front of us, multiple times — it was pretty amazing,” Dr. Bowman said.
In the years that followed, researchers worked to identify what made these shows risky. They found that although this was the case in most fairs hand hygiene stationSome had signs that explained how to use them – and almost none had them.
They also documented the risks associated with the standard weigh-in procedure, in which pigs are lined up nose to tail, and directed to the scale one by one. During that process, several pigs poked their noses into the vertical sorting panels used to hold the animals in place, and one infected pig contaminate the normal surface, “This results in quick transmission,” Dr. Bowman said. “It’s a pig for everyone in the queue behind them.”
The researchers, who have shared their findings with show organizers and health officials, say they have seen some changes, with many shows moving away from mandatory mass weigh-ins.
Some of the bigger shows and fairs, which traditionally last a week, have also started sending most of the pigs home. after 72 hours, That timeline means that pigs that would be infected at a show would be gone before they could start spreading the virus. “They are not on public display where they are infecting other animals or people,” Dr. Bowman said.
Still, not all shows have been ready to make this type of top-down change. So, too, is the Ohio State team working from the bottom up.
When they weren’t competing, many of the children at the New Lexington Show wandered into the vendor barn, where local artisans and organizations were selling their wares. A booth near the entrance, where a cartoon pig in a lab coat invited children to enter the “scientist laboratory”, did a brisk business.
When a group of three preteens arrived, Jacqueline Nolting, a researcher and teacher on the Ohio State team, challenged them to test their hand-washing skills. She instructed them to apply a clear gel to their hands and to wash them thoroughly. Then, he brought out a black light, announcing that any trace of the prison would glow. Six hands got burnt.
“Oh, you have so many germs!” she shouted. “Into the crevices of your knuckles – can you see how it got into the crevices of your knuckles?”
This activity is a mainstay of the Scientist programme, which the team began developing in 2015 to teach young exhibitors how to keep their pigs and themselves healthy. At the New Lexington show, Dr. Nolting, who led the program, also invited children to practice putting on and taking off personal protective equipment and handed out backpacks filled with activities such as a biosafety scavenger hunt. (Those who completed all seven activities were entered into a drawing for the iPad.)
Researchers attend swine shows across the country with two objectives in mind: tracking the virus by testing more pigs and stopping its spread by teaching children the basics of biosafety.
Rob McCarley of Circleville, Ohio, said his 5-year-old twins are the first to see what activities the Scientist team is offering at a show. “They’re looking forward to it,” he said. (And they are paying attention; when one of the family’s pigs got sick this spring, one of the twins announced they must isolate the animal.)
But success didn’t come overnight, and some families initially welcomed the Ohio State researchers cautiously. “Like, ‘They’re targeting me, and they think my pigs are sick,'” Kelly Morgan said. who manages OH-PIGS, a circuit of Ohio swine shows. “Trust had to be built in the beginning.”
The scientists shared their data with the exhibitors and reassured them that they “aren’t just here to tinker and produce and take,” Dr. Bowman said. They presented themselves as partners with shared goals.
“He gave us some great tips and some great ideas on how to keep our herd healthy,” said Lindsey Caldwell of Leesburg, Ohio, whose two daughters raise pigs. For example, he advised that after returning from a show, the family should change or disinfect their shoes and isolate the stray pigs, Ms. Caldwell said.
His 16-year-old daughter, Maddie, has also taught some of these lessons to her peers in her agriculture classes. And despite her fear of needles, Maddie is among the kids who have provided blood samples to researchers, who are also collecting nasal swabs from young demonstrators in hopes of learning how often they’re exposed to influenza and what their immune systems look like.
“I take swabs mainly to find out: Does the disease reach me?” said Ruth Ann Carity, 15, a pig exhibitor from Minster, Ohio. “I’m just curious to know.”
However, some health tips, such as advice on avoiding eat or drink Around animals, there has been a tough sell. For many families, some of whom bring crockpots with them to the barn, sharing a meal at a show is a way to build community. And with a show that can go on all day, it may even be a logical necessity, Ms Morgan said: “I mean, you have to feed the kids or they get very hungry.”
Ultimately, the Ohio State team decided to relax the recommendation, with concerns that it was so inconsistent with the culture that it would undermine their credibility. (It’s also unclear how much eating and drinking might increase the risk for people who are already spending hours sharing the air with their pigs, Dr. Nolting acknowledged.)
It is difficult to determine how effective the team’s efforts have been as a whole; Surveillance is still fairly new, and some flu seasons are naturally worse than others. “But I think we’ve moved the needle,” Dr. Bowman said. “There’s change happening.”
Pigs aren’t the only farm animals that can carry dangerous pathogens, and researchers recently launched an educational program for people who buy chicks at farm stores. They could also create a cattle-focused program, Dr. Nolting said.
Dr. Nolting said, “We’ve talked about what our logo would look like if it was ‘Scientist and Friends.'” “Maybe he should be friends with our pig in the lab coat.”