In this April file photo, pigs press together on a farm run by Granjas Carroll de Mexico on the outskirts of Xicaltepec in Mexico's Veracruz state. Mexico's Agriculture Department said that its inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, and that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Photo by The Associated Press
Pigs at an Alberta farm caught the same swine flu strain that has sickened hundreds of humans around the world, federal officials said Saturday.
A farmhand who travelled to Mexico and fell ill upon his return apparently infected the pigs with the H1N1 influenza virus, said Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer.
"So far, basically what we're seeing in the pig is the same strain as we see in the humans," Butler-Jones said.
"The concern is that if it's circulating in a pig herd, that any other humans that come onto the farm might be exposed and be at risk."
This is the first time this swine flu virus has been found in pigs.
The farm worker returned to Canada from Mexico on April 12 and had contact with the pigs two days later. About 220 pigs in the herd of 2,200 began showing signs of the flu on April 24, said the country's top veterinary officer, Dr. Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
All of the pigs are recovering or have recovered and the farm worker has also recovered.
One other farm worker subsequently fell ill. It's not yet known if that person caught the swine flu.
Bulletins were sent to Alberta pork producers warning them of the possible danger that swine flu could present to their herds on April 24, said Gerald Hauer, the province's chief provincial veterinarian. But by that time, the farm worker was already back from Mexico and on the job at the 2,200-hog operation.
"He was in the barn, doing his work on April 14," Hauer said.
The farmer notified provincial officials that an unspecified number of his animals were showing flu symptoms on April 28. The barn was quarantined later that day and remains under quarantine.
No other area hog barn has been affected.
Alberta Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld said the outbreak shouldn't affect Alberta's export markets.
"Border closures are certainly unwarranted," he said. "We'll see what transpires.
"(The Americans) at this point have no problems with the export of our pork."
Alberta farmers raise about 1.6 million hogs. They exported about 600,000 of them last year, for sales of about $50 million.
Still, Saturday's news was a chilling reminder of the 2003 BSE outbreak, which shut down exports of Canadian cattle for more than a year.
"Food safety is not an issue in this case so hopefully we'll deal with science here and not emotional issues," said Groeneveld.
The virus has shown no signs of mutation when passing from human to pig, Evans said.
"At this point in time, the issue of this being a human virus, having been introduced to the pigs, and the characterization of this virus, shows it is still that virus," he said.
"There's been no adaptation identified through the transfer from humans to pigs at this time."
The herd in question has been placed under quarantine. It's not yet known what will happen to the pigs.
It's common to see influenza in pigs and human transmission to pigs is known to occur, Evans said.
Normally detecting influenza in pigs would not generate a response from food safety officials, but with an international flu outbreak, the current circumstances are different, Evans told a news conference in Ottawa.
"The chance that these pigs could transfer virus to a person is remote," said Evans.
The swine H1N1 virus, a never-before-seen combination of swine, avian and human genes, is believed to have jumped to humans a while ago and has been passing person to person.
The World Health Organization has insisted there is no evidence that pigs are passing the virus to humans, or that eating pork products poses an infection risk.
Herman Simons, a spokesman for Alberta Pork, a producer's group, said the main worry is the possible effect of the discovery on exports.
"That's our big concern," Simons said. "The biggest concern is it may impact exports of live animals into the U.S."
In 2008, total Canadian pork exports were valued at $2.7 billion, including nearly $527 million worth of Canadian live swine exports.
In a statement, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said met with his American counterpart, who assured him the U.S. will not close its borders to Canadian pork exports.
Jurgen Preugschas, president of the Canadian Pork Council, said some countries have already closed their borders to pork from North America, but he said those decisions have little to do with food safety.
"Don't confuse trade issues with health issues," he warned. "Countries are often looking for an excuse to close borders or to put tariffs on trade. It has nothing to do with protecting their people; it's got everything to do with politics.
"It's a market access issue. It's an excuse to close the border for a period of time and possibly, in many cases, lower the prices so they can come in and buy products at a cheaper price."
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization dropped the term "swine flu" - a nickname that angered pork producers and led to a drop in pork sales - in favour of its scientific name: "H1N1 influenza A."
Meanwhile, Canada's swine flu caseload swelled Saturday to 85 cases as health officials confirmed a host of new cases in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Quebec.
Public health officials say Nova Scotia has 17 new cases of swine flu, as jurisdictions across Canada are starting to report the widening spread of the illness.
Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of Nova Scotia, said at a news conference Saturday that of the new cases in the province, 11 are students who were exposed to the virus at the private King's Edgehill school in Windsor, N.S.
The other six were tested in doctors' offices in the Halifax area, suggesting the virus has jumped from being isolated in a small town to Atlantic Canada's most densely populated city.
There are now 31 cases in Nova Scotia, making it the province with the largest number of confirmed cases in the country.
Meanwhile, seven new cases have been reported in Alberta, doubling that province's count to 15.
Two women, one man and a girl became Edmonton's first to come down with the disease. One woman and a boy were also diagnosed with swine flu in northern Alberta.
Another woman in Calgary has also come down with the disease.
None of the cases have required hospitalization, said Alberta Health.
Strang said he is uncertain whether any of those infected in Halifax had contact with students from the private school, or if they contracted the illness from other sources.
He said further tests are needed, and he'll know more in a few days.
"This is not a surprise. We fully expected to see more cases, as I've been saying all week. We also expected it would spread beyond King's Edgehill school," said Strang, after announcing the new numbers.
He added there have been no reports that any of the people with the flu have been hospitalized.
Though he emphasized that to date most cases are mild, he also urged Canadians to be cautious.
"I ask people to be extra vigilant and to take precautions around general hygiene. That means washing hands thoroughly and often, coughing and sneezing into your sleeve and disinfecting tables and worktops," he said.
Meanwhile, new cases have also been confirmed in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
Health officials in Quebec confirmed the province's second case of the flu strain, a school-age child who recently returned from a trip to Mexico. Quebec's first case was confirmed in Montreal earlier this week.
British Columbia reported three more confirmed cases Saturday bringing the total in the province to 22. All the cases have been mild and the patients have either recovered or are recovering.
Two more confirmed cases were reported in Ontario, bringing that province's total to 14 cases.