Swine-flu inspectors in improper gear got virus

Federal government inspectors did not take proper precautions when investigating a swine-flu outbreak on a central Alberta pig farm, says a report obtained by CBC News.

Some staff wore ill-fitting respirators borrowed from firehall

Two CFIA staffers got sick a day after taking nasal and blood samples from pigs in a barn on this central Alberta farm. ((CBC))

Federal government inspectors did not take proper precautions when investigating a swine-flu outbreak on a central Alberta pig farm, says a report obtained by CBC News.

Two workers for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) subsequently got sick with the H1N1 virus, according to a report by Alberta Health Services.

The pair took nasal and blood samples from pigs on a farm near Rocky Mountain House for two hours on the night of April 28. The workers wore protective gear, but the report said they did not have the right equipment and were not shown proper procedures.

The full-face respirators available to them had not been fitted properly, and also fogged up their masks, making work difficult inside the hot barn.

The two workers were not taught how to best put on or remove their coveralls, disposable shoe covers, double gloves or full-face respirator.

"They stated that they lifted their mask inside the barn to allow the sweat to drip down. They doffed their equipment without assistance, and the face mask was the first piece of equipment to be removed. Showers were not available on site," said the internal report.

The day after their work in the barn, the workers developed sore throats, followed by symptoms of cough, fatigue, sweats, and headache. Test results on May 7 confirmed the pair had contracted H1N1.

"We acknowledge that in this particular case, all the proper protocols and procedures in place were not fully observed," Dr. Jim Clark, national manager for disease control for CFIA's animal health division, told CBC News on Monday.

New procedures implemented

The report noted that once swine flu was confirmed in the herd, staff were given a full presentation by Health Canada on May 8 — 10 days after the two original staffers worked in the barn.

The procedures implemented after they got ill included:

  • Properly fitted and sized full-face respirators with N95 filters.
  • Eye protection with seals around the eyes.
  • A trained staff member to assist with putting on, taking off gear.
  • A maximum of two three-hour shifts to reduce fatigue, buildup of sweat.

It was also recommended that staffers get the seasonal flu vaccine as well as prescribed antivirals for those in contact with swine.

The report dated July 2 was based on interviews with 14 staff directly involved in the swine-flu outbreak investigation at the farm from April 28 to May 26.

They said prior to the change in procedures, three of the staff were using ill-fitting respirators borrowed from a firehall.

Staff noted that potentially exposed workers continued to work after exposure, possibly infecting other humans or animals, said the six-page report. They were also concerned they were not informed when their co-workers contracted H1N1.

Pigs culled on farm

Alberta Health Services, which commissioned the report to study effective protective strategies and to examine how to reduce the risk of infection to workers, did not fulfil requests by CBC News for an interview.

About 500 pigs were culled on a central Alberta farm near Rocky Mountain House in May. ((CBC))

Clark said he was unaware of the AHS report until contacted by CBC News. He said the CFIA is conducting an internal investigation and is making changes to avoid a similar situation in the future.

About 500 hogs were culled on the Alberta pig farm on May 8, because the animals could not be sold. The animals had been under quarantine since April 28.

Swine flu is transmitted from animal to human mainly on pig farms where farmers and workers are in close contact with live pigs. The virus cannot be contracted through eating pork.

The spread of swine flu from human to human happens in the same way as seasonal flu, through coughing or sneezing.