Keep concern over swine flu at State Fair in perspective

Just wait, a huge swine flu epidemic will break out this week, and the Record will never live it down. However, it still seems to us that the suggestion that the swine barn at the Minnesota State Fair be shut down was a bit overblown.

Michael Osterholm, renowned epidemiologist and head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recommended that all 900 state fair hogs be sent home.

Osterholm said that his concern is long-term because a new variant of the swine flu, H3N2, has been appearing around the country. This flu can be spread from hog to hog or from hog to human. Osterholm says the longer it stays alive, the more likely that the virus will become increasingly virulent, meaning that its symptoms will become more severe and more contagious.

Furthermore, one child for sure and possibly two came down with the swine flu after attending a live animal market in Dakota County earlier this summer.

However, a live animal market is different from the state fair. The biggest difference is that almost all of the hogs at the state fair got there after first winning a competition at a county fair. Every county fair that shows livestock in the state has a veterinarian to check that the animals are healthy. Second, the animals are rechecked at the state fair.

Richard Danila, assistant state epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health, disagreed with Osterholm, and said the danger of swine flu needs to be kept in perspective. So far this year, some 80 million Americans have interacted with hogs at fairs and shows, and 230 cases of swine flu have resulted. That’s not quite 3 per million.

Public health officials are doing what we pay them to do, part of which is to warn us of dangers to our health from environmental factors. But like anything else, they need to pick their battles carefully.

If they don’t say anything and a bunch of people die, the public will accuse them of being derelict in their duty. But if they warn us too often and nothing happens, something worse will happen — the public will start tuning them out.

Our guess is that the chances are a lot greater than 3 in a million that somebody will get sick eating fair food than they will get sick by strolling through the state fair swine barn. With that in mind, we’re fine with the decision to keep the swine barn open.