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Avian Flu Pandemic & The Workplace

What is Avian influenza?

Avian influenza, or "bird flu", is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and less commonly, pigs. Avian influenza viruses are highly species-specific, but have, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier to infect humans.

How do people become infected?

Direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces, is presently considered the main route of human infection. Exposure is considered most likely during slaughter, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking.

Does the virus spread easily from birds to humans?

No. The current outbreak, is small compared with the large number of birds infected. It is not presently understood why some people, and not others, become infected following similar exposures. Why are pandemics such dreaded events? Influenza pandemics are remarkable events that can rapidly infect virtually all countries. Once an international spread begins, pandemics are considered unstoppable, as they are caused by a virus that spreads rapidly by coughing or sneezing. The fact that infected people can spread the virus before symptoms appear adds to the risk of international spread via asymptomatic air travelers.

What are the implications for human health?

The widespread persistence of H5N1 (the current strain) in poultry populations poses two main risks for human health. The first is the risk of direct infection when the virus passes from poultry to humans, resulting in very severe disease. Of the few avian influenza viruses that have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, H5N1 has caused the largest number of cases of severe disease and death in humans. Unlike normal seasonal influenza, where infection causes only mild respiratory symptoms in most people, the disease caused by H5N1 follows an unusually aggressive clinical course, with rapid deterioration and high fatality rates. Primary viral pneumonia and multi-organ failure are common. Most cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults.

Preparation

A pandemic could have major implications on business and world trade activity. It is likely that air travel will be severely impacted and that the availability of goods and services will be impacted. Some of the key actions you can take are as follows:

Prepare a Response Plan and designate a Response Leader.

  • Develop strategies for educating the workforce and responding to infection outbreaks.
  • Ensure a reasonable inventory of materials essential for business continuity.
  • Purchase necessary medical supplies early (see previously mentioned warning about spread of infection prior to visible symptoms).
  • Fund vaccination programs at work.
  • Be proactive in dealing with State authorities.
  • Send sick employees home.
  • Change working hours to accommodate the impact on essential services and also to spread the risk of a business impact. Consider two shifts for office and manufacturing type positions (a two shift system may reduce by half the risk of total shutdown of your business; if you minimize the contact between the shifts).
  • Purchase Short term disability insurance immediately. If a pandemic starts, you will not be able to get a policy at a reasonable rate.
  • A second risk, of even greater concern, is that the virus - if given enough opportunities - will change into a form that is highly infectious for humans and spreads easily from person to person. Such a change could mark the start of a global outbreak (a pandemic).

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