The last weeks of summer are prime time for agricultural fairs in Massachusetts, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to browse crafts, sample food, and pet livestock, with pigs often a popular attraction.
But a new strain of influenza found in pigs that has infected more than 220 people nationwide — mostly children who have come in contact with the animals — is prompting health warnings for fairgoers.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising children younger than 5, people older than 65, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic conditions, such as asthma, to consider avoiding pigs and swine barns this season.
The agency also recommends that visitors wash their hands frequently with soap and water after visiting pig barns and avoid eating or drinking while in the animal areas. It also advises that children’s toys, pacifiers, spill-proof cups, baby bottles, strollers, or similar items not be brought into areas with pigs.
The warnings prompted the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which oversees state fairs, to send an e-mail advisory earlier this month to fair organizers with guidelines for minimizing chances for infections. Those guidelines directed organizers to carefully inspect animals for illness, remove any that appear ill, and keep all animals returning to farms separate from other livestock for two weeks.
‘We are . . . aware of the [flu] and are taking every precaution to stay on top of it.’
“We are paying attention to what has been going on in other states, but we are not overly concerned about it,” said department spokesman Reginald Zimmerman.
No cases of the new swine flu have been reported in Massachusetts, but two of the 12 cases detected last year were found in Maine. A sudden surge of illnesses reported in people who attended agricultural fairs in July, mostly in Indiana and Ohio, spurred the CDC to issue two health advisories in recent weeks. The agency said all of those infected have recovered.
The virus does not appear to spread easily from person to person, but is thought to spread from pigs to people when an infected pig coughs or sneezes and a person inhales the droplets. There is also evidence, the agency said, that people are infected by touching something with the virus on it and then touching their nose or mouth.
While this new strain of swine flu contains a gene from the 2009 H1N1 swine virus that killed more than 500 children nationwide and sickened millions, officials said it is a different germ and does not appear to be nearly as virulent.
The Marshfield Fair, which opened Friday and runs through next Sunday, typically features pigs from Massachusetts, minimizing the chances of swine importing the infection from the Midwest, said Carleton Chandler, secretary treasurer of the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society, which organizes the event.
“We are certainly aware of the [flu] and are taking every precaution to stay on top of it,” Chandler said.
He said the 145-year-old fair, expected to draw about 160,000 visitors, posts signs in animal barns advising people to wash their hands when leaving and also provides hand-washing stations.
More than 1 million people are expected to visit the Eastern States Exposition, more commonly known as the Big E, in West Springfield in September, said Donna Woolam, livestock director.
She said the fair expects to exhibit about 75 pigs from southern New England and New York state.
“They are a highly intelligent animal, and they are fun to watch,” Woolam said. “It’s always a big crowd gatherer.”
Woolam said organizers inspect all pigs entering the event for signs of illness and that they will have many hand-washing stations for visitors.
“Well-managed visits to a swine area will help eliminate any risk,” she said.