OTTAWA (Canadian Press) — A herd of sick pigs was nothing to sneeze at for public-health officials.
The federal government realized that how it handled a herd of pigs that caught swine flu could set a precedent in Canada and elsewhere, a new document shows.
An outbreak of H1N1 on an Alberta farm last spring was the first-ever report of the new virus in pigs, and the source of the infection remains a mystery.
Government officials were keenly aware others would be watching them closely to see how they handled the ailing herd.
"Canada is in the unenviable position of having to decide on how to manage the pigs on this farm," a public-health official wrote to colleagues last May.
"Action taken could set a precedent, at least in the short-term, on how these issues are managed in Canada, and perhaps in other countries as this situation evolves."
The Canadian Press obtained the May 5 email and other documents under the Access to Information Act.
The email shows officials were weighing three options: culling the entire herd, controlled marketing and lifting the quarantine on the pigs.
Canadian officials also sought advice from three international bodies over the pig problem.
At one point, Canada's food-safety watchdog even considered sticking pigs with a special swine-flu needle to stop the virus from spreading through herds.
Those plans were later dropped when health officials found pigs weren't making people sick.
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 by eating pork.
Still, nobody wanted to buy the Alberta farmer's pigs, so he ended up culling the herd of 3,000 hogs.
Dr. Christopher Olsen, a swine-flu expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the government didn't know what it had on its hands last spring.
"It's quite easy to look back in retrospect," he said.
"Now it's been quite widely recognized that this virus has infected pigs in many areas. So, looking back, it was not at all a unique circumstance for Canada.
"But at the time, nobody knew that. Nobody knew that this perhaps was not going to be one of a small number."
Olsen added that other countries would have been watching Canada "quite closely" at the time.
"The livestock industry in the world today is quite a highly-integrated industry, and to a large degree it's based around international trade," he said.
"So what happens in one country can have very fundamental impacts on other countries and other jurisdictions."
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's office wasn't immediately available for comment.
Other documents obtained by The Canadian Press suggest the federal government was wary about the World Health Organization declaring a swine-flu pandemic in the early days of the outbreak.
Public-health officials suggested Aglukkaq carefully broach the issue of upgrading the virus to alert Level 6 during a phone call with the head of the WHO.
"The minister may want to discuss going to Level 6 and getting clarity around what that means exactly," says a May 4 email between officials.
"She may also want to softly raise the public communications issue of going to Level 6 with a current strain that is seemingly mild. This will have to be carefully nuanced."
The WHO raised the swine-flu alert to the pandemic level on June 11. It was the first time the international body had called a worldwide flu epidemic in more than four decades.