H1N1 Flu and Its Threat to the Workplace--and the Human Race
British food critic Toby Young once remarked of one of the dishes produced by a Top Chef contestant that it was a “weapon of mass destruction.” The contestant swallowed a bit hard on that critique, but when it comes to the real, workaday world, invisible little critters can indeed become “weapons of mass destruction” before we even realize it. The recent H1N1 influenza pandemic (called the “swine flu” until pig farmers complained) reminded us of our vulnerability to nature’s underbelly. In this case, the H1N1 virus represented a morphing together of human flu, avian flu and swine flu that could spread from human to human. So far, it’s been contained successfully, but this was true in 1918 as well when an early flu came and went with little fanfare, only to reappear later in the year with a vengeance, killing 40 million people worldwide. Will the swine flu go in hiding, strengthen its resistance to human and manmade defenses, and then reappear later this year or early next? That’s the big question, and the answer is that we all must be prepared for that possibility.
The 1918 flu epidemic was spread in part by troop movements during World War II. In more recent times, both AIDS and SARS hopped aboard passenger jets and criss-crossed the globe. In Colonial times, Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas and returned home bearing and spreading syphilis. And of course, what English cosmologist Stephen Hawking calls mankind’s sole God-like creation—the modern computer virus—spreads invisibly through cyberspace. (Hawking: “I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.”) Our latest weapon of viral mass destruction and its journey around the globe also owe their success to airline travel, but also to free trade and the rapid movement of goods and foods—and their production—around the globe.
While the H1N1 virus doesn’t come from the pork products one buys in supermarkets, the production of the pigs could well be a source of the influenza. In February, 60 percent of the 3,000 residents of La Gloria, Mexico, came down with H1N1 flu symptoms. Many had long complained of filthy conditions at the nearby Smithfield Foods pig farm in Veracruz, specifically about the manure lagoons and the flies that circulate in and around them. Bloggers wrote of “toxic and sick-making clouds” from these sewage lagoons that carried airborne “pig feces and decayed tissue.” When the influenza hit big time in April, the first person to die in Mexico lived in a house next to where pigs were raised. The connection was made, and fingers were pointed at Smithfield. The American firm immediately began a tight-lipped testing operation at its Veracruz farm, but soon denied responsibility for H1N1. “Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico,” the company said in a statement.
Case closed? Time will tell, but for now the onus is on health organizations, governments and the public itself to prepare for any eventuality. The current crisis crested after a couple of weeks, and life began returning to normal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, after initially recommending that schools shut down for two weeks if any student comes down with the influenza, reversed itself less than a fortnight later and said that infected children only should be confined at home for that period. The schools could remain open. Similarly, in Mexico, where officials ordered a shutdown of all schools and businesses, the crisis abated and business as usual returned after five days. The World Health Organization also downgraded its alert level, as officials everywhere concluded that the disease wasn’t as predatory or as dangerous as originally thought.
The United States was home to about 400-plus cases of H1N1 infection in the early going before matters crested, making it second only to Mexico in the number of afflicted individuals*. Had things developed along pandemic projections, however, workplaces might’ve faced the potential of 30 percent of all employees’ being out sick or caring for others at any given time, and revenues might easily have plunged 8 to 12 percent. So far, that scenario hasn't developed, and just two deaths were reported in the U.S. through the first week of May. Workplaces had scrambled on first warning to put into place policies and procedures to lessen the impact of the virus, and success was widespread.
Nonetheless, the weapons-of-mass-destruction aspect still remains, especially if the virus takes on a renewed vigor and comes roaring back. The WHO and CDC are making preparations for that possibility, and laboratories are rushing to develop vaccines for both treatment and prevention (current vaccines including Tamiflu have so far proven effective in treatment, but there is no preventative vaccination so far). As with most influenzas, which in any given year routinely account for 36,000 or more deaths in the United States, the young, elderly and immunity-challenged are most prone to serious effects. In the current outbreak, some 62 percent of the H1N1 victims have been under 18 years of age. Most symptoms have been mild. Some victims have required ventilators, others hospitalization. Of about 1,500 laboratory-confirmed cases worldwide, fewer than 50 people have died from the influenza.
To get technical, the current virus is among those in the Influenza A classification, the deadliest type, meaning it is capable of producing a pandemic. Thus you will often see the swine flu listed as A/H1N1. The H and N both stand for surface proteins comprising the flu strand, in this case hemagglutinin (H) and neurmindase (N). There are 16 known H proteins and 9 N proteins; the virus exists as a combination of these two proteins. And here’s the scary part—the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was also an H1N1 virus, as is the current swine flu virus. That 90-year-old pandemic, remember, claimed 40 million lives worldwide, and this was before air travel and today’s free-flowing worldwide trade. However, on the plus side, both medicine and disease control and prevention have come a long ways since then. We are certainly much better prepared today to forecast, set up defenses, and then contain and control pandemics.
The strain that reappears, if it does reappear, is truly a weapon of mass destruction like that dish Toby Clark joked about—or like the Spanish flu of 1918. Then we could all be in for a rough ride that no one will want to joke about.
* Since this article was written, the H1N1 virus has continued to spread and affected more than 10,000 people worldwide, with six deaths reported in the United States. Still, it has not yet become the pandemic predicted to afflict 20 to 40 percent of populations. Time will tell if it develops into that type of virulent phenomenon.
To help American businesses cope with the flu threat, Personnel Concepts has developed an H1N1 Swine Flu Preparedness Poster for use in the workplace that details personal preventive measures along with companywide actions that can be taken to ward off the flu virus and ensure safety and health.
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