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Hog producers ramp up swine flu safeguards

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 WINNIPEG — Manitoba hog producers are ramping up safeguards to protect against swine flu since scientific experts still can’t pinpoint whether the virus originated in pigs or humans.

Hog barn workers with flu-like symptoms are being told to see a doctor and stay home, while hog producers on are the lookout for any signs of sickness among their herds.

Manitoba’s chief veterinarian Dr. Wayne Lees called pigs a "mixing vessel" for flu, since the animal has receptors in its trachea for bird flu and human flu, along with a susceptibility to swine flu. Lees said human flu prefers human hosts, bird flu prefers birds, and swine flu normally likes pigs — but he warned viruses can mutate quickly and jump from species to species.

While the disease is currently spreading from person to person, Lees said there is a concern the virus could crop up in pigs.

A small number of Manitoba pigs fall ill with flu every year, and exhibit symptoms similar to humans, including runny noses.

Reports out of Mexico allege that one of the first victims of the virus lived near pigs, and no health officials have been to the man’s home yet to inquire about the hogs or offer his antiviral drugs to his close contacts.

There are no cases of swine flu in Manitoba, but hospitals across the province are on high alert for patients with symptoms consistent with the new disease.

"Pigs are known as a mixing vessel for influenza virus," Lees said.

"If a pig is co-infected with influenza viruses from a person and is already incubating a swine virus, that sets up opportunities for these recombinations to happen and that’s why it’s so unpredictable."

Manitoba Pork Council general manager Andrew Dickson said hog barn workers already shower before and after entering a barn so as not to bring diseases like influenza to work. Hog operations restrict the flow of people and animals inside barns to prevent the spread of illnesses, and pigs coming into Manitoba from the U.S. are quarantined and inspected for signs of disease.

"We’ve advised producers that they should keep an eye on their herds and in particular their employees, because it would appear this flu has got the wrong name," Dickson said.

He said it’s more likely people will infect pigs than vice versa.

 The origin of swine flu is one of the many unknowns as the mysterious disease continues to raise global fear that it could unleash the next pandemic.

There are now 40 confirmed cases in the United States, all mild, in five states -- New York, Ohio, Kansas, Texas and California. There are 26 confirmed cases in Mexico, one in Spain and, on Monday, two people in Scotland tested positive for the virus.

More than 700 people are being treated in hospital for serious respiratory illnesses in Mexico and 1,070 have been discharged. Of the 149 recent deaths, 20 have a confirmed link to the swine flu outbreak, which is mostly concentrated in Mexico City.

Six Canadians have tested positive for mild cases of swine flu, and public health officials across the country are bracing for more.

"Simply because we are seeing mild symptoms so far does not mean we can take this for granted," said Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones. "We will likely see more cases. We will likely see more severe illnesses. And we will unfortunately likely see some deaths as well. We hope not, but that is a normal part of an influenza outbreak of any type."

A number of different scientific teams at the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab are working to develop a swine flu  vaccine, along with a full genetic profile of the virus from Mexico. That profile could help answer the question why cases in Mexico have been so severe, killing several otherwise healthy young people, when cases in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have been comparatively mild.

"It’s something people around the world are puzzling over," said scientific director Dr. Frank Plummer.

Tory health critic Myrna Driedger questioned the readiness of the Doer government’s pandemic plan, including who would be quarantined and vaccinated.

Manitoba’s chief medical officer Dr. Joel Kettner said the province has stockpiled about 200,000 doses of antivirals should a pandemic strike. He said health officials are doing everything they can to respond to the changing nature of swine flu, and will keep Manitobans informed as they learn more about the disease.

Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the province is on top of the swine flu fight.

"We believe that we are prepared for this pandemic."

— with files from Larry Kusch, Associated Press and Canwest News Service.

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