We’ve been talking a lot about the swine flu outbreak the last few days, but so far all we’ve really talked about are the human aspects. The reason we’re blogging about it on this site is that it’s a zoonotic disease – so where do the pigs fit in?
There’s a distinct lack of information about where this strain of the influenza virus actually came from. I heard on the news this morning that one person who was interviewed by a CNN reporter was even trying to blame Canada for the outbreak, claiming that it was Canadian tourists that introduced the disease to Mexico in the first place! While I’m sure there will eventually be a great deal of investigation into how the outbreak got started (for the moment I think everyone’s more worried about trying to just keep it under control), it’s quite possible that we’ll never find the "index case" or know exactly from where it came. But one thing’s for sure: somewhere along the way, there has to be some pigs involved.
Pigs are the great "mixing pot" of influenza viruses, particularly with regard to avian, human and swine versions of the pathogen. Pigs can be infected by strains of all these different types, and coinfections (infection with more than one influenza virus at the same time) provide the viruses with a prime opportunity to trade RNA and recombine to form new influenza strains with new properties – more infectious, more virulent, or perhaps better able to infect another species, for example. In this case we appear to have a swine influenza virus that is not only capable of being spread to people (as occasionally happens with "regular" swine influenza viruses), but also between people, and hence the developing human outbreak.
But what about the pigs? There isn’t a lot of information out there at the moment, with all the focus on the human aspect, but so far Mexican authorities have found no infected pigs in Mexico (at least no where they’ve looked – so far). Influenza in pigs is really nothing new, and other swine influenza strains are commonly found in pigs around the world. Highly pathogenic strains, like those that cause massive devastation of poultry flocks, don’t occur in swine. If an influenza virus gets into a pig barn, however, it’s like putting a person with the flu in a crowded room – the virus spreads very quickly through the air over short distances and soon everyone (or every pig) has the flu. Thankfully the virus generally also moves on quite quickly, and after a few days the animals generally start to recover. While such an outbreak certainly affects their growth efficiency, very few (if any) pigs die.
Yesterday the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) distributed a fact sheet on swine flu from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for all Canadian veterinarians and swine producers. The CFIA is encouraging increased vigilance with regard to monitoring and diagnosing disease in Canadian pigs, to prevent the disease from spreading through the swine population. In addition to emphasizing vaccination, good hygiene practices and biosecurity, particularly around sick pigs, they also point out that it’s equally important (especially now) for anyone who may have the flu to avoid contact with pigs (be they Canadian pigs or pigs in any other country), in order to avoid spreading the virus to them. Hopefully people in other countries will take the same precautions.
Another very important point is that swine influenza is NOT a food safety concern. The virus does not survive well in the environment for very long, and therefore cannot survive on pork products, and certainly cannot survive proper cooking (which is always very important for any kind of meat). The fact that some countries are banning pork imports is really not going to do anything to help control the outbreak – the concern should only be about live pigs (and people). So you can still have pork sausages at your next spring barbeque, just ask anyone who’s feeling "under the weather" (or a little flu-ish) to please stay home!!