The cover of the May 2006 HRMagazine states “PANDEMIC - How to prepare for the unthinkable.” The Avian Flu that is receiving so much attention by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is being referred to as the Kissin’ Cousin to the 1918 Spanish Flu.
CDC and OSHA both have information on their websites encouraging employers to plan for the protection of their workers in the event of pandemic influenza. The CDC states “businesses will play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety as well as limiting the negative impact to the economy and society. Planning for pandemic influenza is critical.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the CDC have developed a checklist for large businesses. It identifies important, specific activities large businesses can do now to prepare, many of which will also help in other emergencies. Further information can be found at www.pandemicflu.gov and www.cdc.gov/business.
In a recent address to the American Bar Association, Jonathan L. Snare, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Administration presented Pandemic Flu Preparedness as the #3 “big issue” for OSHA. He stated that “OSHA and the Department of Labor are responding to the hazards of bird flu in the workplace, and we're preparing for the possibility that one strain of the avian influenza could mutate to a highly transmissible human virus and cause a pandemic illness likes of which hasn't been seen since 1918.”
The industries that OSHA has already issued guidance for workers most likely to be exposed to the bird fl include farm workers, laboratory workers, medical personnel that transfer and treat avian flu patients, food handlers, and airline crews. The March 2004 guidance by OSHA is being updated and is expected to be released soon.
Experts on disease prevention inform us that pandemics occur roughly three to four times a century and don’t occur at predictable intervals. They believe that we are overdue for a pandemic, thus the concern over the Avian Flu. History shows three pandemics have swept the world since 1918 when the world experienced the deadliest pandemic ever known ñ the Spanish Flu.
1918: The Spanish Flu was a strain of the subtype H1N1 of the species Influenza A virus. It killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and they were killed during about a one-year period. This flu did not originate in Spain but was named Spanish Flu because it apparently received more press in Spain. Some of my research on this flu indicates that the virus actually may have originated in Fort Riley, Kansas with a cook who may have been preparing chickens when he contracted the virus. This strain killed young and healthy victims. A person could be struck suddenly and within hours be unable to walk and many died the next day. Symptoms were a blue tint to the face, coughing up blood, uncontrollable hemorrhaging, and pneumonia. This flu vanished within 18 months but did not disappear entirely as weaker strains have been reported to have shown up since then.
1957: In 1957 along came H2N2 a subtype of the species Influenza A virus that mutated into various strains including the Asian Flu. This flu originated in China and spread worldwide until 1958. Worldwide deaths range from one million to four million people. A flu vaccine was developed in 1957 that helped contain this virus.
1968: The Asian Flu strain later evolved into a milder pandemic from 1968 to 1969 and killed between 750,000 to two million people worldwide. It began in Hong Kong, thus the name Hong Kong Flu and spread to the U.S. that year. It is now reported to be extinct. This virus mutated into the annual flu that kills an estimated 36,000 people in the U.S. each year. The annual flu vaccine is offered every year.
2003: The Avian Flu (H5N1) is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs in birds and can be deadly to them. It usually doesn’t infect people, however, human cases have been reported. The CDC reports that these cases “have occurred from direct or close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces; however, rare cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus may have occurred.” The fear is that this virus will mutate into a form that easily passed from human-to-human.
So, let’s begin planning for a pandemic. It’s imperative that businesses develop their own plans. Most large companies have crisis and disaster recovery plans, however, many don’t include this type of planning. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, employers should expect an absenteeism rate of up to 40% in the middle of a severe pandemic. For guidance on this planning, visit the OSHA website www.osha.gov/dsg/guidance/avian-flu.html and for a Business Pandemic Planning Checklist visit www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/pdf/businesschcklist.pdf.
Even if the avian flu doesnít become a pandemic, this is a good time to prepare for this type of disaster or any other type of disaster, such as what was experienced by so many businesses with Hurricane Katrina.
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