OTTAWA — Should Porky Pig get a swine-flu shot?
That’s a question Canada’s food-safety watchdog pondered this spring after an Alberta hog farmer’s herd caught the H1N1 virus, a newly released document shows.
An internal report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests officials considered sticking pigs with a special swine-flu needle to stop the virus from spreading through herds.
“Vaccination can be a useful tool for control and eradication of emerging diseases as an alternative to large-scale slaughter and disposal of ‘at risk’ animals,” the report says.
The report was sent to the agency’s top veterinary officer and its president April 25 — four days after the Alberta pigs started showing flu-like symptoms.
The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.
Pigs can catch flu viruses from infected pigs and people, mostly from coughing and sneezing. But there’s no proof people can get the H1N1 virus from pigs or eating pork.
Little was known about the novel strain of the H1N1 virus as the food-inspection agency mulled swine-flu shots for pigs.
The outbreak at the farm near Rocky Mountain House, Alta., was the first-ever report of the new virus in pigs, and the source of the infection remains a mystery.
The food-inspection agency held conference calls with animal-health experts this spring at the height of the Alberta farm incident.
At the time, agency officials thought vaccinating pigs might help stop the spread of the virus, said Cate Dewey, who teaches swine health management and epidemiology at the University of Guelph and was on some of the calls.
“That was some of the early discussion: ‘My goodness, if pigs are going to be a source of infection for people, we’d better vaccinate pigs so that we don’t have this huge problem with people,”’ Dewey said.
There was talk of making a special H1N1 vaccine for pigs, she added. But those plans were dropped when health officials found pigs weren’t making people sick.
Vaccinating pigs against flu viruses is common. Some U.S. drug companies make flu vaccines for pigs that are licensed in Canada, which are sort of like seasonal flu shots for pigs.
The agency’s report also cites industry statistics showing half of Canadian sows are vaccinated against various flu viruses.
The document says pigs may be “highly vulnerable” to bird and human strains of flu viruses, especially if a new strain infects the herd.
But the report also found vaccinating pigs isn’t always the best way to stop the virus from spreading through a herd.
That’s partly because it takes pigs a few days to build up immunity to the virus after they get the shot.