As the state fair opens in Timonium, pigs that will be judged for prizes will also be under scrutiny from state veterinarians after an outbreak of swine flu nearly threatened to shut down the event.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said a new strain of swine flu has been detected in 12 people who were exposed to pigs this month at the Queen Anne's County Fair. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday showed 276 cases nationwide.
When the outbreak was first reported, state officials and fair organizers said they discussed canceling the swine competition. But late last week, the state health and agricultural departments said it was safe to go ahead.
While the show will go on, there have been disappointments. Sarah Branham, 17, of Centreville was hoping to show her pig, but it fell ill. The sickness turned out not to be swine flu, but because of the Queen Anne's County outbreak, her family decided to leave the pig at home just to be safe.
"A lot of times, parents want to fix everything," said Joe Branham, 45, Sarah's father. "Sometimes you've got to have disappointment in life."
Instead, his daughter will show a friend's blue butt, a crossbreed named for patches on its hindquarters.
Sarah Branham said not exhibiting her own pig was "kind of a letdown." But her adopted 6-month-old female seemed in good form as she charged around the pig pens, causing a child to screech, "Piggy on the loose!" when it got too close.
While the new strain of swine flu, labeled H3N2v, can make the leap from pig to human — especially if an animal sneezes on a human, according to the CDC — unlike the H1N1 strain that killed thousands of Americans in 2009, it has a hard time traveling from one human to another.
That is reassuring, the CDC said in a statement Friday. Still, state fair organizers are taking no risks. All pigs entering the fairgrounds will be inspected by state and federal agriculture officials, and any that appear ill will be turned away. Checks will continue three times a day throughout the fair.
Colorful posters reminded visitors on opening day Friday to wash their hands after coming into contact with pigs, and fair organizers have set up extra hand-washing stations around the grounds. As a further precaution, pigs will not be out in the petting zoo for children.
The advice from fair president Max Mosner is simple: "Wash your hands, and wash your children's hands."
Andy Cashman, assistant general manager of the fair, said the flu's effect on pigs is much like its effect on humans: It gives them a fever, makes them grumpy and puts them off their food. So far, he said, no sick pigs have been found at the fair.
A few people might be reluctant to visit the swine barn, Cashman said, "but there's really no reason for them not to."
State health officials say for most people, the flu poses a fairly low risk, but elderly adults, children younger than 5 and people with chronic health problems should take extra precautions.
"We're recommending that people who are at risk of complications if they get flu be careful and consider not getting around the pigs and pig barns this year," state epidemiologist Dr. David Blythe said.
In recent years, state fairs have beefed up their measures for dealing with disease after outbreaks of E. coli. Mosner recalled meeting with CDC officials in Stone Mountain, Ga., to discuss how to keep visitors to the fair safe.
"We came home and doubled everything we had done," he said. Now hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer are standard.
People checking out the fair Friday at lunchtime did not seem too worried about swine flu.
"I'm not worried at all," said Cindy Gerry, 52, a preschool teacher from Bowie. "I've been coming here 25 years and touching the animals."
Others had strong opinions about pigs, but not necessarily shaped by the risk of flu. Crystal Freeman, 31, of Baltimore, called them "disgusting" — although "if they're dead and fried, that's a different matter," she said.
But asked if she knew any pig fans, her daughter, 5-year-old Mackenzie Wilson, shot up her hand.
Freeman did not think touching pigs was a good idea at the best of times, but Mackenzie said with a grin that she might give it a try anyway.
The fair will continue through Sept. 3 at the fairgrounds in Timonium.