Swine/Avian Flu: Current Situation and General Concerns

By Anne Lichtenwalner, DVM, PhD, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

A single case of novel H3N2 “swine flu” was diagnosed in Maine recently. The patient has recovered. At this point, the CDC is investigating the case. What should farmers do? If you have pigs, it’s even more important to follow good biosecurity practices, and to be quite aware of the importance of diagnosing disease.

In general, some forms of influenza appear to be transmissible between animals and humans. Should we be concerned about this? There were cases of influenza that passed from swine and birds to humans in a few instances during “flu season,” especially during 2009. In general, extensive exposure to birds or swine who may be ill (as in live bird markets, or intensive pig farming) seems to be associated with human cases of the disease. We should be vigilant to protect Maine’s animal and human populations by using excellent biosecurity on our farms and in our fairs, schools, workplaces, and homes.

Birds get the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, in general, from other birds. This could occur through exposure of poultry flocks to wild birds. Not all strains of avian flu are highly pathogenic, but even the low pathogenicity viruses are watched carefully by health authorities. So far, we have not seen the highly pathogenic variant of bird flu in our region. It appears that biosecurity and control programs are effective, but we should continue to be aware of this potential problem.

What are the signs of avian flu? They can look like many avian diseases: swollen/bluish wattles/head, respiratory signs, diarrhea, pinpoint hemorrhages on legs. However, in highly pathogenic avian influenza, we see sudden and widespread death losses in the flock. If you suspect avian flu, contact your vet, the local extension office or the state vet (Dr. Don Hoenig, 207-287-3701). Avian flu testing can be done at no charge.

What about swine flu? Influenza in pigs can mimic other disease, but generally would be associated with respiratory symptoms. A blood test can be performed to diagnose swine influenza virus (SIV). In general, if you work with swine, you should protect them and yourself by wearing a mask whenever aerosols (coughs, sneezing, dust) are produced. Isolate sick pigs away from others, and always work with them last to avoid spreading disease on the farm. Discuss these cases with your vet, and if there is influenza-like illness in your family, mention to your health care provider that you raise/own pigs.

Where do you go for current info about animal flu in humans? Try the Maine Center for Disease Control and also the World Health Organization.