“We just want to get ahead of the curve, as these things do tend to spread,” said Peter L. Beilenson, the health officer for Howard County, which issued an alert Saturday. “We’re not trying to raise hysteria. We’re trying to make sure people avoid getting sick.”
Health officials pay close attention to swine flu cases: Strains of the virus caused a pandemic in 2009 that led to thousands of deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. There were mass vaccinations and shortages of the vaccine.
August is the traditional time of the region’s county fairs, where attendees can count on fried foods, cotton candy, carnival rides and animal exhibitions. The Fairfax County Fair was this past weekend; the Prince William County Fair begins Friday; and the Prince George’s County Fair will start Sept. 6.
Some area fairs have gotten rid of petting zoos, in part to avoid the spread of animal-carried diseases, especially to young children, who would be most likely to handle the animals.
In Montgomery County, the fair is scheduled to begin Friday, and officials have arranged to have dozens of hand-sanitizing stations, hand-washing stations and portable restrooms with sinks as part of an effort to allow people to keep clean.
Martin Svrcek, executive director of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, said that the county fair does not have a petting zoo and that fair planners have worked hard to understand “what causes these kinds of illnesses and what we can do to prevent them.”
“There are so many opportunities to wash your hands on the grounds,” Svrcek said. “We feel pretty comfortable with the safety precautions we’ve taken.”
He said safety is his most important priority for the fair.
“As our urbanized society has moved farther from farms, many folks who are city dwellers have not developed the same kind of immunities that farmers or people who have been around farms have,” Svrcek said.
Although swine flu has not been widespread in humans this year — the CDC reports 29 confirmed cases in the United States since August 2011 — health and fair officials recommend that people avoid touching pigs. Typically, pigs contract the virus in their intestines and throats and can pass it easily.
Swine flu symptoms are similar to regular flu symptoms, including fever, coughing and sneezing.