The Lingering Threat of Avian Flu: Companies Should Continue to Take Steps to Prepare for an Outbreak of Pandemic Flu and Provide Workers with PPE

By Bennett, Bill | Occupational Hazards, January 2008 | Go to article overview

The Lingering Threat of Avian Flu: Companies Should Continue to Take Steps to Prepare for an Outbreak of Pandemic Flu and Provide Workers with PPE


Bennett, Bill, Occupational Hazards


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Headlines warning of a possible pandemic flu outbreak have started to wane, but the threat is far from over. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a global outbreak of easily transmissible influenza --such as the H5N1 avian flu virus--will happen, and likely within a few years.

Influenza pandemics have occurred for centuries, with three recorded during the last 100 years--in 1918, 1957 and 1968. The pandemic of 1918, referred to as the Spanish flu, resulted in more than 50 million deaths worldwide, with nearly 700,000 deaths occurring in the United States. After experts warned that a modern flu pandemic could result in just as many fatalities, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged all countries to develop or update their "influenza preparedness plans."

At least 15 different strains of avian influenza are presently in existence. The current outbreak, which was discovered in China in 1996, is caused by H5 N1, which is highly contagious among fowl and has killed millions of birds in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Fortunately, no case of H5N1 infection has been reported in poultry or humans in the United States.

The H5N1 stain, unlike many other strains of avian influenza, can be transmitted to humans and causes severe illness and even death. Most humans who have become infected with avian flu have come into close contact with infected poultry (domestic geese, chickens and turkeys) or surfaces contaminated with secretions or excretion from infected birds.

Early studies indicated the avian flu virus does not pass easily between humans, although this opinion began to change after health officials confirmed that avian flu cases in Indonesia involved person-to-person transmission of the flu virus, even though infected individuals had not come into close contact.

Concern continued to grow after researchers discovered that bird flu virus H5N1 has mutated into a form that makes it more infectious to humans, increasing the risk of a human pandemic. At this point, more than 300 avian influenza cases have been reported in humans, with the virus proving fatal to nearly two-thirds of its victims.

Preventing the Spread of Avian Flu

According to OSHA, poultry, health care and laboratory workers; veterinarians; and animal and food handlers face the greatest risk of infection if an avian flu outbreak occurs. Poultry farmers who move infected live birds, dead birds, chicken feces, contaminated crates or even feathers and farm equipment also can become infected and spread the disease

Other individuals--including workers at public facilities such as restaurants, parks, factories, shopping malls and waste management facilities--also should be protected since they may clean or dispose of items handled by individuals who were exposed to the virus or who already are infected. Protecting these individuals especially is important since the incubation period for the avian flu virus typically ranges from 1 to 4 days.

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Individuals can help protect themselves in a number of ways, such as frequently washing their hands with soap and water. They also should avoid contact with sick poultry or surfaces soiled with discharge from the mouths or beaks of infected birds or their feces.

Workers who may be at risk should recognize the symptoms of avian flu so they can seek medical attention and isolate themselves from others. Avian flu symptoms are similar to other types of influenza and include cough, fever, sore throat and muscle aches. Victims can develop life-threatening complications such as viral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress within a few days.

Individuals who have flu or cold-like symptoms should make sure they cough or sneeze into tissues or the crook of their arm instead of into their hands. The CDC recommends that workers who are ill stay home from work and keep sick children home from school. …

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