A pair of piglets at the fairgrounds on Friday were significantly bigger and several pounds heavier than they were when they arrived at The Great Frederick Fair in mid-September.
But the animals were also finally cleared to go home after a decision from the Animal Health section of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
“[Assistant Chief of Animal Health] Dr. Janine Davenport walked through the barn yesterday and determined the quarantine could be lifted,” state veterinarian Michael Radebaugh said Friday in a phone interview. “The pigs had bright, alert responses — you could see that they’re eating, they’re breathing normally. Basically, they’re happy and healthy and ready to be home.”
The order ended a two-week quarantine that began at the fairgrounds on Sept. 23, when state inspectors found a pig with a 106-degree temperature in one of the swine barns. The animal was later diagnosed with H3N2 swine influenza, and both swine barns and the Birthing Center at the fair were placed under quarantine.
Eleven pigs at the fair tested positive for swine flu, and two pigs died as a result of the disease. A preliminary necropsy found that the first died of bacterial pneumonia exasperated by an influenza infection, while the second had influenza alone and was euthanized by a veterinarian.
Roughly 85 pigs remained in the two swine barns on Friday morning as exhibitors and families trickled through to take their animals back home. There were 196 pigs at the beginning of the quarantine period, but that number was reduced as pigs left for slaughter, said Karen McAfee, a swine superintendent with the fair.
The animals that left were meat hogs already scheduled to be killed. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspect all commercial pork, but swine flu cannot be spread through eating pig products, Radebaugh said in an earlier interview.
The spread of swine flu at The Great Frederick Fair came around the same time as the same strain was identified in pigs at the Charles County and Anne Arundel County fairs. The state departments of Health and Agriculture are still working to trace the origins of the virus — in part through samples taken from pigs and human patients — but it will likely be four to six weeks before results come back from the National Veterinary Service Laboratories and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Radebaugh said.
And while swine flu spread to multiple counties in Maryland, the veterinarian credited 4-H families and swine superintendents in Frederick County for stopping local transmission.
“We’re very proud of them, because they did a tremendous job,” Radebaugh said. “They took extensive records and that also helped us, because we could look at them and know the quarantine was ready to be lifted.”
There have been no new cases of swine flu in Maryland since Sept. 27 and The Great Frederick Fair was the last site where the virus was reported. Three farms in Frederick County were also monitored by Animal Health after sick pigs were found after they left the fair, but those are also soon to be cleared, Radebaugh added. The hold order on one has already been lifted, and the remaining two are expected to be lifted by next week.
A sense of relief
For exhibitors and superintendents who remained at the fair, there was a visible sense of relief on Friday as families arrived to pick up their animals. For the past two weeks, 4-H families and fair officials had worked tirelessly to keep the remaining pigs fed and watered and to clean the often stiflingly hot barn as they waited for the quarantine to be lifted.
“For me, the main takeaway — and this is the reason I’m a swine superintendent — is that I call the 4-H my family and I love these kids and I would do this again in a heartbeat,” McAfee said, tearing up. “It was everyone working together. The 4-H motto is to make the best better, and they truly did.”
McAfee, along with several other superintendents and 4-H parents, camped at the fairgrounds for three weeks as they worked with the animals. Others drove to Frederick every day to ensure their hogs were fed and the stalls were clean.
The pigs, too, seemed happy to see the quarantine lifted. Two-year-old Dixie Eckenrode could barely keep up with Cotton and Bruise, her family’s two breeding sows, as they galloped around the swine barn Friday night.
“They’re like little kids,” said her father, Scott, gesturing to the animals. The two pigs never showed signs of sickness, but were required to remain in the barn for the duration of the quarantine.
“They get into everything,” he continued. “But they’ve been sick of being cooped up, too. There hasn’t been much we could do for them, beside watching their temperature and water and stretching their legs once in a while.”
Officials are still developing plans to prevent the disease from spreading next year, Radebaugh said. Swine superintendents in Frederick County were issued instructions for cleaning and disinfecting the two swine barns, and the buildings will remain empty until next year’s fair.
The state Animal Health program will meet next week to discuss possible improvements, he added. State officials are already recommending that fair boards don’t allow swine on the grounds for more than three days to limit the spread of the disease.
McAfee also hoped that the outbreak would encourage fair board officials in Frederick County to make improvements to the swine barn. Unseasonably warm weather was cited as a primary culprit in the spread of influenza, and the heat was compounded by the building’s tin roof and limited ventilation, she said.
“I think the heat was the number one variable,” McAfee said. “And we have to do something, because there’s only so much we, as superintendents, can really do. If we have another hot year, I don’t know what will happen.”