Swine Flu - A Full Briefing

Everything you could ever want to know about swine flu, including what you can do as an employer to help minimise the risk of contamination.

Swine Flu - a full briefing

What is swine flu?

The swine flu is a respiratory disease that infects pigs and is caused by an influenza virus. Pigs are often infected by it but very rarely die. It does not normally infect humans but when it does, this is usually due to close contact with pigs.

The swine flu that has recently spread to humans has now been identified as a new version of this virus which is considered by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to be highly contagious and can easily spread from person to person.

What are the symptoms of the swine flu?

The symptoms are very similar to those of human seasonal flu including fever, fatigue, lack of appetite, coughing, sore throat. Vomiting and diarrhoea have also been reported in some cases.

While a number of people have died in Mexico (and one 23 month old child in the USA ) the symptoms of those who have been confirmed as having the swine flu in other countries have been relatively mild.

Like any other type of flu, it is not the virus itself that can kill people but rather the complications that can arise from infection, such as pneumonia. It is therefore especially important to ensure that vulnerable persons are not infected such as the elderly, the very young, persons recovering from surgery and persons with weakened immune systems.

How is the virus transmitted?

Swine flu spreads in the same way as ordinary colds and flu through droplets that are projected from the nose or mouth whenever someone coughs or sneezes. If someone coughs or sneezes and they do not cover it the droplets can spread about one metre and people nearby might breathe them in.

Another method of transmission is where someone coughs or sneezes into their hand, droplets and the virus within them are easily transferred to surfaces that the person touches, such as door handles and hand rails. If someone touches these surfaces and then touches their face, the virus may enter their system and they may become infected.

How can the risk of transmission be reduced?

The risk of transmission of the virus can be reduced firstly by persons always covering their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It is sensible for anyone who experiences coughing or sneezing symptoms to carry disposable tissues with them at all times. After a single use, the dirty tissue should be disposed of.

It is important to maintain good basic hygiene e.g. frequently washing hands with soap and water or biocidal hand gel to reduce the spread of the virus from the hands to face or to other people.

Also it is important to clean hard surfaces such as door handles regularly in areas where potentially infected persons have been as the virus can live on a hard surface for up to 24 hours. It can also live for up to 20 minutes on soft surfaces such as furnishings.

Are face masks effective?

A number of businesses have considered buying face masks to protect workers from airborne droplets. The Health Protection Association (HPA) has recommended that healthcare professionals wear masks where they are dealing directly with infected people. They do not recommend that healthy people wear face masks about their everyday business as their use has not been demonstrated to prevent infection and it may actually increase the risk of infection e.g. touching the outside of the mask when removing it.

What can employees do?

The NHS has advised that all persons who have recently returned from Mexico or another affected country and are experiencing have flu-like symptoms should stay at home and call their GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647. They should be encouraged to avoid going to their GP surgery or a hospital as they may spread the disease to others.

The NHS also advises that they confirm a network of ‘flu friends'. These are friends and relatives who could help them if they fall ill. They can collect medicines and other supplies for them so they do not have to leave home and possibly spread the virus. It is also sensible for workers to have a stock of food and other supplies available at home that will last for two weeks in case they and their family are ill.

For further info, the NHS has issued an information leaflet entitled “IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT SWINE FLU” which is available for download in PDF format from www.nhs.uk

What can employers do?

The main concern for employers is not from the health hazards but from the potential disruption to business. It is therefore important for companies to:

Also employers should not let the current media focus on swine flu draw attention away from other core Health and Safety issues – remember there are far greater hazards in the workplace than the remote possibility of an outbreak of swine flu!

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