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Strategies used to avoid potential avian flu also help fight seasonal flu


ITASCA, Ill.--There's a positive side effect for companies now making plans to handle a potential avian flu pandemic: Some of the same steps to avoid spreading a major flu virus among employees, put into practice now, can help keep the seasonal flu at bay in the workplace, experts say.

"A lot of the mitigation strategies are also effective when it comes to fighting the seasonal flu," said Dr. William Craig, senior vp of Marsh Inc.'s Risk Consulting Practice in Chicago.

Dr. Craig, who headed a workshop last month titled "The Potential Influenza Pandemic" at the recent Risk Management and Employee Benefits Conference and Exhibition in Itasca, Ill., said the threat is making its way to the forefront among companies that fear a wave of employee absences--a threat not immune to the seasonal flu that affects thousands every year during its peak season.

"Lots of people are asking us, 'What are you doing?"' he said. "There are things that companies could be doing now."

The recent strain of the avian flu first appeared in 1997, when an outbreak among poultry in Hong Kong caused 18 cases of avian flu among humans and resulted in six deaths. Since then, wild birds have helped spread the flu among poultry in 36 countries. The most recent statistics from the World Health Organization report that the virus has sickened more than 250 people in 10 countries and resulted in 152 deaths.

The virus so far has been spread only from bird to human. While it has not mutated into a human-to-human strain, Dr. Craig said it could be a matter of time before that happens.

The last major flu epidemic was in 1968 and 1969, when the Hong Kong flu caused 1 million deaths. Before that it was the Asian Flu in 1957 and 1958, which killed about 2 million people, and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, which killed at least 40 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

"Experts say, yes, (it will happen again) because it's been a long time (since a major flu outbreak)," Dr. Craig said.

Meanwhile, this year's flu season is on the doorstep.

Dr. Craig said some of the basic strategies that employers could put into place to help avoid the spread of this year's flu--and potentially the deadly avian flu later on--in the workplace include the following:

  • Practice social distancing. Provide employees with at least one meter of personal space and avoid or reduce workplace meetings. Rely on videoconferencing and Internet conferencing. Provide employees with the option of telecommuting, and other alternative work arrangements, to avoid public transportation.

  • Maintain good hygiene practices. Encourage employees to wash their hands. Provide offices and other common work areas with alcohol-based anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. Keep work areas clean.

    c Impose travel restrictions for employees who travel often for work.

  • Provide and encourage vaccinations. Although avian flu vaccines are unavailable, seasonal flu vaccines can help prevent the spread of that virus.

  • Stockpile anti-viral drugs. Large businesses with in-house medical staff have been ordering and setting aside anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu. Tamiflu maker F. Hoffmann-LaRoche Ltd., which has been promoting business stockpiling, says the effort has resulted in 60 orders.

  • Screen employees and visitors for illness. Dr. Craig said the most effective way is to ask anyone entering the building if they have had a fever or been ill and, if they have, ask them not to enter and seek medical advice.

  • Provide employees, particularly those working in hospitals and clinics, with breathing masks.