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Could that cute pig at your state fair give you the flu?

Sept. 11, 2017—The pigs at your state fair may be fun to see. But a new study warns that visiting swine exhibits may increase your risk of getting the flu.

A close connection

State fairs allow people to get up close with many types of animals, which sometimes carry germs that can be harmful to people. Pig exhibits in particular have emerged as a potential source for transmission of certain flu viruses called "influenza A H3N2 variant viruses." It's common for these viruses to spread among pigs at fairs. And people can sometimes get them, too, after being around infected pigs.

A study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases tracked human cases of a certain H3N2 variant virus linked to pigs at seven agricultural fairs in Michigan and Ohio in 2016. Researchers sampled 161 pigs from the seven fairs and found that almost 78 percent of the pigs tested positive for the virus, though many of them showed no symptoms of the flu.

In all, 18 human flu cases were linked to exposure to pigs with the flu at these exhibits.

The viruses in the pigs and humans were nearly identical. Most of the cases of flu in people were mild and easy to manage. But signs of pig-to-human infection do lead to worries about the risk of a possible future flu pandemic.

Keeping pigs on display

It's important to know that H3N2 variant viruses don't always originate with pigs. In this case, people had actually passed the virus to the animals first.

So instead of getting rid of pig exhibits altogether, one solution to this problem is to cut down on the amount of time that pigs are on display at fairs to just 72 hours. Researchers believe this would limit the number of pigs that could be infected. Vaccinating pigs against flu could also help.

If you want to learn more about this study, check out the full article.

Tips for visiting animal exhibits

State fairs offer a unique opportunity for people to interact with animals. However, you should take these steps to help keep you and your family healthy:

  • Wash your hands after touching or petting an animal. Find out where the handwashing stations are located. Choose to wash with running water and soap, if possible—but alcohol-based hand sanitizer works in a pinch.
  • Don't eat or drink in an area where animals are on exhibit.
  • Keep an eye on children under the age of 5. Make sure they don't put thumbs, fingers or an object like a pacifier in their mouths when they are around an animal exhibit.
  • Don't take items like strollers, bottles and toys into animal areas.
  • Those younger than age 5 or older than 65 should take special care around animal exhibits.
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