You faced an extra dose of influenza this season, with the onset of the new Type A H1N1 and all the baggage that went with its inappropriate label of “swine flu.”

It turned out to be mild, but that’s not to say it will stay that way. The virus could resurface with more intensity, in next fall’s season flu season; it could remain mild or sort of burn out. The one thing that you can say about influenza viruses is they “always throw you a curve,” says Bruce Gellen, MD, Health and Human Services vaccination director.

“An H1N1 subtype has been in swine since 1930, but the current one is a new hybrid,” notes Peter Davies, DVM, University of Minnesota. “This subtype has parts of genes from bird, pig and human viruses.”

The warm weather should offer an influenza reprieve, but now is exactly the time to keep the momentum alive within your operation and staff to prepare for next fall and every flu season thereafter.

The full story of Type A H1N1 is yet to unfold. As of this writing, a single herd in Alberta, Canada, tested positive for the strain, and an infected worker appears to have passed the virus to the pigs.

Swine’s lack of involvement in spreading the flu strain matters little. You know all too well that you paid a dear price. About 10 percent of the U.S. pork export market was shut down in the early weeks of the infection, and domestic pork sales slowed. It was all short-lived, but the financial impact is still being assessed.

If hog prices had remained flat from April 24 through May 8, the impact would have been a $39.2 million drop in producers’ revenue, note agricultural economists Steve Meyer and Len Steiner, authors of CME’s Daily Livestock Report. If prices had followed a typical seasonal upward trend during those two weeks, there would have been another $24.3 million to gain. “So the real reduction in producers’ bottom lines is more than $63 million and counting,” the duo says. 

So, now are you ready to work on developing an influenza strategy for the people and the pigs on your operation?

Where to Start?

Commit some time to work on this task; get your management staff involved and walk through what needs to be addressed, improved and enforced within your production system. Plan to write down the details and convey the information to all employees. Then be prepared to enforce the procedures. 

“A big uncertainty for our industry is if it (Type A H1N1) enters the U.S. herd, how will the disease present itself,” Davies comments. It is somewhat comforting that pigs in the infected Canadian herd showed a mild response to the virus and recovered.

Overall, flu viruses are fragile and they dry out easily. The Type A H1N1 virus’ virulence is unknown, but hog-dense areas are always the most vulnerable, and seasonal changes bring the increased chance of exposure.

Whether it’s Type A H1N1 or another influenza virus, the goal is to keep it out of your herd. Here Davies and the National Pork Board each offer some steps to include in your long-term influenza plan.

  • Biosecurity is your best line of defense. Evaluate your system to ensure that pig and people flows honor the herd’s health status. Follow other protocols like shower-in/shower-out and farm-specific boots and clothing.    
  • Prioritize hand washing — no kidding. Washing hands and arms thoroughly and often is probably the best action you can enforce. Thoroughly means washing with warm water and soap for about 30 seconds (sing a round of “Happy Birthday”). Follow with hand sanitizer. This might require you to add some hand-washing stations throughout your facilities, but if it’s not convenient, it won’t get done.
  • Along those lines, encourage people not to touch their nose, mouth and face. Teach people to cough into a bent elbow so as not to contaminate their hands.
  • Limit visitors in your facilities to workers and essential service personnel, and if they’re not healthy, limit them too.
  • Be vigilant and selective about admitting any visitors who have recently traveled internationally. Povide personal protective equipment and clothing.
  • You have to address sick staff, and that means establishing sick leave and requiring people to honor it. Don’t let them return to work for seven days after presenting signs of respiratory illness. Such symptoms include: Fever, muscle aches, coughing or other respiratory distress, and in some cases nausea and diarrhea. Anyone whose family members develop influenza symptoms should not have contact with hogs. You will need to educate employees on the importance of these policies and that they won’t be penalized for missing work. Establish a job-share system to ensure that all tasks get done regardless of who’s gone and for how long.
  • Provide and require personal protective equipment such as valve-less N95 respirators if someone is ill but must enter the facility. Proper fit is critical. For the record, those white fiber masks probably don’t do  much good. Also provide latex gloves.
  • If anyone on your farm exhibits flu-like symptoms, see that he or she seeks medical help. Also report any international travel and contact with others who have been ill.
  • While the U.S. swine herd is already monitored closely for influenza viruses, if any workers or pigs become ill, call your veterinarian. “It is in the swine industry’s benefit to increase influenza diagnostics and monitoring,” Davies says.
  • You have to ventilate your barns, so don’t look for short cuts there, but systems should be designed to minimize air re-circulation. Limit bird access to buildings with screening and other methods.
  • Review herd-health protocols with your veterinarian to ensure they are up to date and continue to fit your needs.

“It is unknown if current swine influenza vaccines are protective against the Type A H1N1 virus,” Davies notes. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is investigating that further.

Also, as of May 18, scientists at the National Center for Foreign Animal Disease had mapped the full genetic sequence of the virus found in the Alberta, Canada, herd. That will now provide information to help refine prevention, control and diagnostic measures.

A Word about Vaccination 

Everyone within your operation should get an annual flu vaccination. This not only helps ensure that you maintain a healthy workforce, it reduces the chances of people passing influenza virus strains on to pigs.

According to a University of Texas/Zogby International poll, just 36 percent of surveyed adults were vaccinated for the 2008/2009 flu season; only 30 percent said they would get a special vaccine for Type A H1N1 influenza if one was made available. The main reason cited for not getting vaccinated (41 percent of adults) is because they didn’t think it was necessary.

The process for next season’s human influenza vaccine is too far along to include the new Type A H1N1 strain. However, health officials, including HHS’ Gellen, believe an H1N1 vaccine will be ready by early September.

“The human vaccine process has begun,” he says. “Manufacturing won’t get underway until late July, and the fall season’s vaccine will already be shipped before this one is ready.”

So you and your workers may have to line up for two shots this fall.

Still not convinced that you need a formal plan?

Consider this — sure, the Type A H1N1 influenza virus could just fade into the background, but another, yet unknown subtype could surface and be worse. It’s not worth the chance, and it’s not worth the delay.

Editor’s note: For much more on Type A H1N1 background and developments, vist Pork's H1N1 Special Section.

What is a Pandemic?

Not surprisingly, the word pandemic conjures up certain images and ideas, most of them inaccurate. A pandemic is not so much a reflection of a health concern’s severity; rather, it is more a reflection of the spread.

Liz Wagstrom, DVM, National Pork Board’s vice president of science and technology, offers some other perspectives.

  • Pandemics behave unpredictably.
  • They produce a rapid surge in cases, globally, in a brief period — within days and weeks.
  • The impact is determined by the virus’ ability to cause illness in non-traditional age groups (beyond the very young and old, and the infirm).
  • The World Health Organization has a six-level pandemic alert system, of which the Type A H1N1 episode reached level 5. However, while that serves as a global alert system, it also allows governments to launch progressively more intense preparedness activities.