How would you feel if doctors diagnosed your child with a cough or a “flu virus”, but instinct told you there was much more to it? That's what happened to several LaPorte County parents whose kids got sick at the fair earlier this month, at the same time dozens of pigs became ill. Turns out, lab results confirmed the pigs and kids were sick with the same rare virus.
The Indiana State Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and the USDA National Veterinary Services laboratory in Iowa found 4 people and all 12 randomly selected pigs from the LaPorte County Fair swine barn had what’s called influenza A (H3N2)v – a strain of influenza in the same family as swine flu.
However, that strain is so rare that before the recent LaPorte County outbreak, a release from ISDH to all Indiana health departments said only 13 reported cases of the strain have been reported in the United States in the past two years.
But some LaPorte County parents whose children were sick are upset about how the local outbreak was handled.
It’s a July night at the fair Holly Hunt and her family won’t soon forget.
“Me and my husband took [our 13-year-old daughter] to the emergency room and on the way from the campground to the hospital, she was almost unconscious,” Hunt recounted. “I was slapping her face, asking her questions, trying to get her to stay awake.”
Once they arrived at the ER with Emma, who’d been taking care of her pigs in the swine barn, Hunt said she became even more alarmed by the reaction from doctors and nurses.
“We told them we were in the swine barn and they immediately all put masks on, they started IVs in Emma and took blood cultures to be sent off. It was just nerve wracking not knowing what was going on,” Hunt continued.
She wasn’t alone. WSBT spoke with at least three other parents whose children also became ill at the fair with similar upper respiratory symptoms. When members of the LaPorte County Fair Swine Committee checked the temperatures of all the pigs in the barn on July 13, 41 of the pigs had fevers so high that guidelines issued by the State Board of Animal Health kept them from being sold at the auction.
But fair organizers didn’t quarantine the barn.
“They really didn’t tell us anything,” Hunt said. “They didn’t want anybody to know what was going on.”
Also on July 13, neither the LaPorte County Health Department nor the State Board of Animal Health knew humans were sick until WSBT called them. They later launched a joint investigation into the human and swine illnesses.
“I’m angry now,” Hunt said, because she recently found out her daughter, at least two other children and one adult were officially diagnosed with influenza A (H3N2)v – the same virus all the tested pigs had.
“I got a $2,700 emergency room bill where they tested [Emma] for everything from a pregnancy test down to a cocaine test. Yeah, I have insurance but why should I have to pay for something that's not my fault? Our pigs weren't sick, the kids' pigs were sold fine, they never ran a fever,” she explained.
The state and LaPorte County Health Departments said they are still investigating, trying to find out if more people were sick. State Health Department Epidemiologist Pam Pontones declined to tell WSBT how many humans had been tested for the H3N2v virus.
WSBT spoke with several parents off camera who said at least a dozen children who had similar symptoms as the pigs and other sick children were treated at local hospitals and doctor’s offices.
However, it’s important to note that pork is safe to eat because this virus is not transmitted into food, said Indiana State Board of Animal Health Public Information Director Denise Derrer.
Pigs have had various strains of flu circulating since the 1930s, she added, but what made this illness unusual was the fact that the same strain of the virus affected both animals and humans at the same time.
St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Felger said H3N2v is a relatively new strain of influenza health officials are still trying to learn about.
“This is extremely rare,” Felger said. “That's why there's not a lot of answers because there's not a lot of data.”
Felger stressed that humans have a very low risk of getting sick from it.
“It’s impossible to say that there's no risk, but again it's extremely low and again, 13 cases in 2 years means it's not very contagious,” he added.To avoid getting sick from something such as H3N2v, a news release from the ISDH suggests washing your hands with soap and water before and after petting or touching any animal. Never eat, drink or put anything in your mouth in animal areas. Older adults, pregnant women, young children and people with weakened immune systems should be extra careful around animals.