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OSHA offers general Q&A on pandemic outbreaks (4/28)

April 28, 2009
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A pandemic is a global disease outbreak, according to information posted on OSHA’s web site. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which there is little or no immunity in the human population; begins to cause serious illness; and then spreads easily person-to-person worldwide. According to OSHA, a worldwide influenza pandemic could have a major effect on the global economy, including travel, trade, tourism, food, consumption and eventually, investment and financial markets. Planning for pandemic influenza by business and industry is essential to minimize a pandemic's impact, says OSHA.

During a pandemic, transmission can be anticipated in the workplace, not only from patient to workers in health care settings, but also among co-workers in general work settings.

Education and outreach are critical to preparing for a pandemic. Understanding what a pandemic is, what needs to be done at all levels to prepare for pandemic influenza, and what could happen during a pandemic helps us make informed decisions both as individuals and as a nation.

Is an influenza pandemic expected to occur?

Many scientists believe that since no pandemic has occurred since 1968, it is only a matter of time before another pandemic occurs. It is difficult to predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur or how severe it will be. Wherever and whenever a pandemic starts, everyone around the world is at risk.Editor’s Note: This information was prepared before the recent outbreak in Mexico that has spread to other countries.

How will I know when an influenza pandemic has started?

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a global surveillance system of circulating influenza strains and a Global Influenza Preparedness Plan. Once a new influenza A virus develops the capacity for efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission in the general population (Phase 6), the WHO declares that an influenza pandemic is in progress (this is known as the "Pandemic Period"). In the event of a pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will coordinate support and intelligence with U.S. public health departments regarding the pandemic situation in the U.S. and in foreign countries.

What are some recommended precautions for the protection of healthcare workers during an influenza pandemic?

Given that the exact transmission pattern or patterns will not be known until after the pandemic influenza virus emerges, transmission-based infection control strategies may have to be modified to include additional selections of engineering controls, personal protective equipment (PPE), administrative controls, and/or safe work practices.

Will my employer be able to provide shots to protect me from pandemic influenza?

A vaccine against a specific pandemic influenza strain will likely not be available until after the pandemic begins. But vaccinations against seasonal influenza during the WHO's Interpandemic and Pandemic Alert Period can reduce co-infections and might ameliorate pandemic effects. A monovalent vaccine is expected to start becoming available within four-to-six months after identification of a specific pandemic virus strain.

The HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan recommends that healthcare workers be included on the priority list when the availability of pandemic influenza vaccinations is limited.

How can I protect my coworkers and help prevent transmission of pandemic influenza within the healthcare facility?

Healthcare employers and employees should work together to develop an institutional safety climate that encourages compliance with recommended infection control practices. Healthcare administrators should emphasize those aspects of infection control already identified as "weak links" in the chain of infectious precautions -- adherence to hand hygiene, consistent and proper use of PPE, and influenza vaccination of healthcare workers.

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