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Arizona State Fair’s H1N1 preparations include hand-washing stations, education

The Arizona State Fair will still feature a petting zoo, livestock competitions, a pig race and a 1,000-pound swine named Harvey even though a few fairs elsewhere have cut back on contact with animals due to concerns about the H1N1 virus.

Calling fears about animals and the so-called swine flu misplaced, officials are spending $50,000 to double the number of hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations around the fairgrounds and posting signs urging visitors to follow proper hygiene. The fair’s Web site will carry a “myths vs. facts” page about the H1N1 virus, said Kristi Walsh, a spokeswoman for the fair.

“The Arizona State Fair’s first priority is the safety and well-being of our fairgoers, employees and animals,” Walsh said.

In Vermont, this year’s Caledonia County Fair banned swine due to H1N1 fears. Fairs in North Carolina and Oregon built special barriers to keep fairgoers away from animals.

But Laura Erhart, an Arizona Department of Health Services epidemiologist who counseled fair officials, said it’s important to dispel the notion that being near animals puts the public at risk of contracting the virus.

“For the most part, the risk is not that the virus will go from animals to people but that it would be transferred from people to the animals,” she said.

The State Fair, which runs from Oct. 16-Nov. 8 in Phoenix, has also adopted a more stringent employee-sickness policy, monitoring all staff for symptoms. Erhart said that makes sense in any setting.

“Anyone who’s sick should be staying home, whether it’s from school, work or the State Fair,” she said.

Tom Miller, executive director of the Arizona Pork Council, said he’s glad fair officials are educating people and dispelling myths.

“The swine industry has taken a tremendous financial hit because of this, when the product is perfectly safe,” Miller said. “And if some fairs are banning swine, they’re being totally unfair, but that’s their privilege.”

Miller noted that no cases of H1N1 have been detected in Arizona swine.

In addition to swine in its livestock competition, the Arizona State Fair offers visitors the opportunity to pay for a peek at Harvey, an 8-foot-long, 1,000-pound pig who is an annual visitor, and to cheer on competitors in The Hambone Express, a traveling pig race.

Charles Boger, who runs The Hambone Express, said in a telephone interview that he hasn’t encountered any negative reaction to his pigs or the race since H1N1 became a concern.

“I’ve been to New York, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, California,” Boger said, “and we’ve had huge crowds everywhere we go.”

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