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Health officials warn fair attendees not to pet pigs due to swine flu fears

Small Pigs in a Pen

 (Reuters)

Don't pet the pigs.

It's the season for state and county fairs, and health officials have issued warning to fairgoers to be careful around pigs because of the 'new' swine flu spreading from the animals to people.

The first death associated with this new flu, otherwise known as H3N2v influenza virus, is a 61-year-old Ohio woman, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

She was not identified but lived in Madison County. She became ill after contact with hogs at the Ross County Fair.

Federal health authorities have reported 288 cases of the strain this summer. The state health director said most of Ohio's cases have been mild; however, he still urges people to be cautious - especially children, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

Pigs get the flu, too, and can spread it to people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking sporadic cases since last year, when the new strain was first seen in people. A concern: the new strain has a gene from the 2009 pandemic strain that might let it spread more easily than pig viruses normally do.

So far, that seems to be the case for pigs to people, but it hasn't been spreading easily from person to person - which is the greater concern.

But even regular flu can be a serious illness, so people should be careful if they're going be around pigs, said Dr. Joseph Bresee, the CDC's chief of influenza epidemiology.

Fairgoers are advised to wash their hands and avoid taking food and drinks into livestock barns.

With summer and fall fairs, "we're likely to see additional cases," Bresee told reporters during a teleconference earlier this month.

He said work has begun on a vaccine for the new strain in case it ever becomes more of a threat.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.