Could the next epidemic start at the county fair?

It was show time at the Young Pigs Fair, and the pigsty was bustling. The contestants, who ranged in age from 3 to 21, practiced walking for the show ring and brushing boar bristles in place. Parents would plait children’s hair and add ribbons and barrettes in the shape of a pig.

Dr. Andrew Bowman, a molecular epidemiologist at Ohio State University, has been walking around the barn in waterproof green overalls, looking for pig mucus. When he slipped into one barn, a pig tried to get out by the nose, and then began to nibble at his shoelaces.

He said that Dr. Bowman prefers not to enter the pens, as he wipes gauze on the animal’s nose. He soon discovers a more engaging subject: a pig sticking its nose out from between the bars of its enclosure. “We have a complete snout bias,” he said. Later, back in the lab, Dr. Bowman and his colleagues discovered that many of the snouts that billow around this crowded barn in New Lexington, Ohio, were harboring influenza.

At least the world is emerging from a killing pandemic 6.9 million the people. It won’t be the last. Outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, which can spread between animals and humans, have become more frequent in recent decades, and zoonotic pathogens will continue to circulate in humans in the coming years. To Americans, the spread may seem like a distant problem, a danger that lurks in places like the live animal market in Wuhan, China, that may be the source of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think there is a real sense here in the United States that the disease is coming from somewhere else,” said Anne Linder, co-director of the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

But there is real danger in our backyards – and backyards. Since 2011, more human cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United States than anywhere else in the world. (This may be because other countries are doing less testing and monitoring, and many cases here and abroad are likely to go undetected, experts say.) Most of them have been associated with agricultural shows and exhibitions. “They became kind of hotspots,” said Ms. Linder.

Although the flu is often mild in pigs, the animals are notorious for causing new strains of influenza. In 2009, one of these new variants, which originated in pigs in Mexico, caused a killing pandemic At least 150,000 peopleAs estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, it’s just the flu, what’s the problem?'” Dr. Bowman said. “If this is the next pandemic, it’s really bad.”

For more than a decade, Dr. Bowman and his colleagues have been documenting the risks and looking for ways to make pig shows safer. Reducing risk meaningfully will require looking at the creatures on the other side of the equation indirectly from pigs. What needs to change, Dr Bowman said, is “a great deal of human behavior”.

Pigs play a major role in the development of influenza. They can be infected with the swine, avian, and human influenza virus simultaneously, and act as hybrid vessels in which different strains can modify their genetic material, creating new copies of the virus.

When the swine flu pandemic struck in 2009, surveillance of influenza in pigs was limited, said Dr. Bowman, who was a practicing veterinarian at the time. But the outbreak was remarkable, and Dr. Bowman, who attended veterinary school in Ohio, returned to the university to work with one of his former professors on a pig-monitoring project.

They began scanning pigs at pig shows, eventually uncovering a nationwide web of events leading to human infections in a predictable annual cycle.

Regional and national “jackpot” shows begin each spring, which attract serious pig competition, rounding up pigs from faraway farms, causing new strains of influenza to spread across the country.

In the summer and fall, far more children bring their pigs to county or state fairs. The researchers found that in about 25 percent of the fairs, at least one pig tested positive for influenza, which tends to spread widely. “By the end of the show, you’ll have 200 pigs shedding influenza virus,” said Dr. Bowman.

The fairs also brought large crowds of people into close contact with the pigs. “There are children who pet and touch the pigs, and at the same time they eat cotton candy and sausages and finger foods,” said Mrs. Linder.

sBirth control pills are not a rare occurrence. In 2012, a major outbreak of swine flu caused more than 300 confirmed human cases; Dr.. Bowman and colleagues found evidence The virus has jumped from pigs to humans during at least seven different fairs in Ohio. “The idea that we see it in front of us so many times — it was very surprising,” said Dr. Bowman.

Over the years that followed, researchers worked to determine what made these offers risky. They find it although most exhibits In terms of sewage stationsa few had signs showing how to use them–almost none did.

They also documented the risks associated with the standard weighing procedure, in which pigs are lined up, nose to tail, and tipped over one scale after another. During this process, many pigs pressed their noses against the vertical sorting boards used to keep the animals in place, and an injured pig could do just that. common surface contamination. “It results in rapid transmission,” said Dr. Bowman. “It’s one pig for everyone behind them.”

The researchers, who shared their findings with show organizers and health officials, say they have seen some changes, with many shows moving away from the mandatory group weighing system.

Some large shows and fairs, usually lasting a week, have begun to send most of the pigs home 72 hours later. This schedule means that infected pigs on the show will be gone before they start shedding the virus. “It’s not in the public eye, where it infects other animals or people,” said Dr. Bowman.

However, not all shows have been receptive to making these kinds of changes from top to bottom. Therefore, the Ohio State team also works from the bottom up.

When they weren’t competing, many of the kids at the New Lexington Fair wandered into the vendor’s barn, where local craftsmen and organizations sold their wares. A booth near the entrance, where a cartoon pig in a lab coat invited children to enter his “Swientist’s Lab,” quickly made business.

When a group of three former kids approached, Jacqueline Nolting, a researcher and teacher on the Ohio State team, challenged them to test their hand-washing skills. I directed them to rub their hands with a clear liquid and wash them well. Then, she pulled out a black light, announcing that any remaining traces of the gel would glow. Six lit hands.

“Oh, you have so many germs!” I wondered. “Into the cracks of your knuckles—can you see how I got into the cracks of your knuckles?”

This activity is a mainstay of the Swientist program, which the team began developing in 2015 to teach young exhibitors how to keep their pigs and themselves healthy. At the New Lexington show, Dr. Nolting, who leads the program, also invited kids to practice putting on and taking off personal protective equipment, and provided backpacks full of activities, such as a biosecurity scavenger hunt. (Those who completed seven activities were entered into a drawing for the iPad.)

Researchers have been keeping up with pig shows across the country, which they attend with two goals: to control the virus by swabbing more pigs and stop its spread by teaching children the basics of biosecurity.

Rob McCarley, of Circleville, Ohio, said the first thing his 5-year-old twins want to do on the show is see what activities Swientist offers. He said, “They are looking forward to it.” (And they seem to be paying attention; when one of the family’s pigs fell ill this spring, one of the twins declared the animal to be quarantined.)

But the success didn’t come overnight, and some families initially greeted the Ohio State researchers with caution. Like, they’re targeting me, they think my pigs are sick,” Kelly Morgan said. who runs OH-PIGS, Ohio’s pig show circuit. “Trust had to be built in the beginning.”

Dr Bowman said the scientists shared their data with the exhibitors and reassured them that they weren’t “just here to stomp, cheer and listen”. They set themselves up as partners with common goals.

“They gave us some great advice and some great ideas on how to keep our flock healthy,” said Lindsey Caldwell, of Leesburg, Ohio, whose two daughters are showing the pigs. For example, they advised that after returning from a show, the family should change or disinfect their shoes and quarantine the pigs that attended, Ms Caldwell said.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Maddie, has also imparted some of those lessons to her peers in farming classes. Despite her fear of needles, Maddie is among the children who have provided blood samples to the researchers, who are also collecting nasal swabs from young models in hopes of learning how often they are exposed to the flu and what their immune systems are like.

“I’m basically scanning to see: Is the disease passing on to me?” said Ruth Ann Caretti, 15, a swine model from Minster, Ohio. “I’m just curious to find out.”

Still, some health recommendations, such as advice to avoid eating or drinking About animals, it was a hard sell. For many families, some of whom bring crockery with them into the fold, sharing a meal on display is a way to build community. And with shows that can go on all day, they can also be a logistical necessity, Ms. Morgan said: “I mean, you have to feed the kids or they’ll get very hungry.”

In the end, the Ohio State team decided to water down the recommendation, fearing that it was so out of touch that it would undermine its credibility. (It’s also not clear how much eating and drinking might increase the risk of people who actually spend hours sharing air with their pigs, Dr. Nolting acknowledged.)

It is difficult to say how effective the team’s efforts are overall; Surveillance is still fairly new, and some flu seasons are naturally worse than others. “But I think we have moved the needle,” said Dr. Bowman. “There is a change happening.”

Pigs aren’t the only farm animals that can carry dangerous pathogens, and researchers recently started an education program for people who buy chicks from farm stores. They might create a program focused on livestock, Dr. Nolting said, too.

“We’ve talked about what our slogan would look like, if it were, ‘Swientist and Friends,'” Dr. Nolting said. “Maybe our pig in a lab coat will have buddies with him.”