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The Unexpected Place You Could Get Sick This Fall

By Emily Shiffer

There’s no shortage of fall festivals in the Lehigh Valley. From cows to sheep to pigs, fairs and fests often include a petting zoo for kids and adults to touch their favorite animals while enjoying the crisp fall air. The pig pen is a popular spot, but it can also lead to illness--specifically, the Swine Flu Virus. Just this year, pigs in Michigan tested positive for Swine Flu.

“Animal exhibits can be very fun and educational for visitors of all ages, but we must be careful to ensure that both the visitors and the exhibit animals remain safe and healthy,” says John Zerfass, PA-C at Palmer Township ExpressCARE.

While rare, it’s important to know that if you plan to touch any animals, you’re putting yourself and others at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 2010-2015, about 100 outbreaks of illness in people linked to animals in public settings like zoos, fairs, and educational farms were reported to public health officials.

What is Swine Flu?

Swine flu is a subtype of influenza A virus, which usually causes upper respiratory tract infections. Other symptoms include nasal secretions, chills, fever, decreased appetite, and possibly lower respiratory tract disease. There are different types of the virus, but the most common is the H1N1 influenza virus.

It usually takes between 1-4 days for the virus to fully incubate before you start experiencing symptoms. (But you may be contagious for as long as 1 day before you have any symptoms.) If you have a normal immune system, you’ll likely experience symptoms between 3-7 days, and up to 2 weeks in patients with a weakened immune system.

How does it spread?

“The way that these illnesses typically spread is very similar to how humans spread flu to each other,” says John Zerfass, PA-C, Palmer Township ExpressCARE. “We either come into direct contact with the flu when touching the animal and then touch our eyes, nose or mouth without properly washing our hands with running water and soap/alcohol-based hand sanitizer, or through airborne droplets released when the animal barks/coughs.”

Who is at risk of getting sick?

“The same at-risk populations for contracting the human flu are at risk for Swine Flu; children under 5 years old, adults over 65 years old, pregnant patients, patients with chronic heart and/or lung diseases, diabetes, patients with active cancer, or patients with compromised immune systems,” says Zerfass. “Patients in each of these populations should avoid direct contact with exhibit animals, or at least spend as little time in exhibits.”

How can you protect yourself?

Here are three important safety tips for keeping yourself and your kids healthy:

Wash your hands

“Washing hands with running water and soap, and/or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after visiting all animal exhibits, even if you didn’t directly have contact the animals.

Leave your food and drink behind

“Do not eat or drink anything when around exhibit animals. And do not share your food with the animals,” says Zerfass. “And do not eat or drink any unpasteurized products that may be sold at fairs.”

Take extra precautions with kids

“Children must always be supervised when around animals,” says Zerfass. “Do not bring items such as strollers, pacifiers, cups, toys, etc., into the exhibit. And do not let children sit or play on the ground in the exhibit areas. Teach children to approach all animals with caution, never placing their fingers near an animal’s mouth.”

When should you seek treatment?

ExpressCARE providers can evaluate patients with these types of complaints,” says Zerfass, “Many patients will recover from these illnesses without prescription medications, depending on the patient’s past medical history.”Testing for these types of flu virus variants can be completed in ExpressCARE locations, either through Rapid Influenza testing units or by sending a sample to the lab for more detailed evaluation.

 If the patient’s symptoms are severe, and the provider is concerned for serious complications that need care that is beyond what we are able to provide in clinic, they may be referred to a local emergency department for further evaluation and treatment,” says Zerfass. If you or your child is experiencing flu-like symptoms after visiting a fair exhibit, it’s important to inform your care provider of your exposure to animals.

“Patients should be reminded to inform providers about exposure to farm animals/consumption of unpasteurized materials to aid in the diagnosis of one of these illnesses,” says Zerfass, “Many providers may ask about these types of exposures, but any specific history details that patients can provide is helpful to us as providers.”

Treatment can include influenza antiviral drugs. Your health care provider will best determine the type of treatment you need after testing and evaluation. Visit lvhn.org/expresscare to find an ExpressCARE location near you.