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Pandemic Avian Influenza Fact Sheet

Summary

What is pandemic influenza (flu)? A pandemic influenza is a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new strain of influenza virus appears, which causes serious illness and death in humans and is easily spread from person to person. Much of the focus on pandemic flu in recent years has centered on the potential threat posed by avian influenza, which is caused by the H5N1 strain of Influenza A. The concern is that the avian flu virus will develop the ability to spread easily from person to person.

Who is at risk? It is assumed that people will not have immunity to a new strain of flu virus and therefore everyone can become infected and ill.

Are there laws to protect workers? There are currently NO laws that specifically protect workers from pandemic influenza. AFSCME, along with the AFL-CIO and a number of its affiliated unions, petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for an emergency temporary standard to protect health care workers, emergency responders and other essential personnel at risk of exposure in the workplace.

What is pandemic influenza?

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. The seasonal flu that appears each year causes a range of symptoms that can include fever, headache, runny and/or stuffy nose, muscle aches, fatigue, cough, sore throat, and stomach problems such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Seasonal influenza can cause serious complications and on average, kills about 36,000 people in this country each year, mostly individuals over the age of 65 or children under 2.

An influenza pandemic is a much more severe type of flu outbreak. Pandemic influenza occurs when a new strain of influenza virus appears, which causes serious illness in humans and is easily spread from person to person worldwide. The disease is very contagious because people have no immunity. If a pandemic flu outbreak occurred, it is estimated that 25 to 35 percent of the U.S. population would become ill. In a worst case scenario, it is predicted there would be 90 million illnesses, 9.9 million hospitalizations, and 1.9 million deaths. There could be tens of millions of deaths worldwide.

Past influenza pandemics have led to high levels of illness, death, social disruption, and economic loss. In the last century there were three such pandemics. The influenza outbreaks of 1918, 1957, and 1968 killed at least forty million, two million, and one million people worldwide, respectively.

Why is avian influenza (bird flu) of such concern?

Although a new influenza virus could appear at any time, much of the recent focus has centered on the potential threat posed by the outbreak of avian influenza. Avian flu is caused by the H5N1 strain of Influenza A. The disease has caused the deaths of millions of birds through illness and by destroying the birds to prevent further spread. Avian flu has also caused human deaths. As of February 3, 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 165 deaths among 271 human cases of avian flu. The latest data on the number of cases can be found at:http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/country/cases_table_2006_01_05/en/index.html. Most of these cases have resulted from people having direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or H5N1-contaminated surfaces. The concern is that the avian flu virus will develop the ability to spread easily from person to person.

How is influenza spread?

Flu viruses are transmitted in three ways — droplet, airborne, contact — although it is not known to what extent that influenza is spread by each route. Infected individuals spread droplets through coughing and sneezing and even talking. Flu viruses are also spread through the air by much smaller infectious particles (droplet nuclei). People can also become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others before symptoms develop and up to several days after becoming sick. Therefore, people can spread the flu before they know they are sick, as well as while they are sick.

Who is at risk?

Pandemic influenza refers to a new strain of virus. Therefore, it is assumed that there is no existing immunity in the human population and that all people can become infected and ill. Currently, there is no vaccine that can provide immunity.

What can be done to protect workers?

Emergency preparedness, by definition, means taking steps to prevent illness before there is a crisis. In the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak it is likely that schools, public and commercial buildings, and businesses would close or alter normal activities. By contrast, health care workers, emergency responders and other essential personnel will be expected to come to work. Currently there is no vaccine to protect against avian or other forms of pandemic flu. In order to prevent workers from becoming infected and, in turn, infecting family, co-workers, and others, it is essential that infection control/worker protection measures are in place. These include:

 

  • Developing a written exposure control plan before there is an outbreak to determine which workers are at risk and what will be done to prevent exposure.

     

  • Using airborne isolation rooms and other engineering controls to reduce exposure to infectious particles.

     

  • Providing at least tight-fitting N100 respirators with a facepiece seal (elastomeric) or powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) equipped with high efficiency filters, along with gloves and other appropriate personal protective equipment. Respirators need to be NIOSH-certified and used according to all the requirements of Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Respiratory Protection Standard (1910.134), available at:http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=12716.

     

  • Combining tasks to limit the number of workers entering a room or area with known or suspected infectious patients.

     

  • Conducting medical monitoring of workers for illness.

     

  • Continuing workers’ regular rate of pay with no loss of benefits (medical removal protection) while they are sick and/or contagious with flu.

     

  • Housekeeping and environmental hygiene to reduce sources of infection.

     

  • Training and communication of hazards through the use of signs and other means.

     

  • Vaccinating workers if a safe and effective vaccine becomes available.

What laws are there to protect workers?

There are currently NO laws that specifically protect workers from pandemic influenza. AFSCME, along with the AFL-CIO and a number of its affiliated unions, petitioned OSHA for an emergency temporary standard to protect health care workers, emergency responders and other essential personnel at risk on the job. AFSCME is calling for stronger worker protections than the recommendations contained in the U.S. Health and Human Services Pandemic Influenza Plan.

February 2007

For more information about protecting workers from workplace hazards, go to this page or contact the AFSCME Health and Safety Program at (202) 429-1215, or 1625 L Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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