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 ongoing 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 2009, 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. H1N1 swine flu vaccines are almost in the ready, and by October 2009 should be available for the public. Some countries are taking aggressive steps to ensure their populations are vaccinated; France is even enlisting the military to carry out vaccinations, but that sounds a bit scary. Also, some people may be reluctant to get the vaccination after an H1N1 vaccination program in 1976 (when the virus failed to spread) suspiciously resulted in many of those vaccinated coming down with the quite awful and debilitating Guillain-Barre syndrome.
While getting vaccinated remains a personal decision in the United States, what steps can employers take to protect their workplace and workers from the H1N1 virus?
Probably the place to start is your company’s sick leave policy. If someone contracts the H1N1 flu, that person should be sent home until 24 hours after all symptoms subside. If your company’s sick policy is too strict (or heaven forbid, nonexistent), you may want to rethink your policy. Many employees will drag themselves to work just to protect their paycheck even if they are viciously sick and infectious to others. This will only worsen the workplace situation, as many others could fall ill as well. You don’t want to sacrifice health, morale and productivity with a restrictive sick policy, and you certainly don’t want sick people populating tight work areas and potentially infecting (and freaking out) others.
As for the physical workplace, cleanliness, as they say, is next to godliness, and with H1N1 still virulent, it’s no doubt wise to clean and re-clean public surfaces in the break and rest rooms as frequently as possible. Common household cleaners used with warm water are sufficient to ensure cleanliness. Don’t overlook surfaces that are frequently touched on doors and entryways to the public areas. Advise employees to keep their own desks and work stations cleaned as well (though they may object that such is the duty of the nighttime janitorial crew).
The most common transmission vehicle for flu viruses are the hands, so it is advisable to educate your employees on the necessity of constantly cleaning their hands before and after eating, after contact with others, and certainly after using the restroom. Masks are not necessary in the workplace, but you may need to come up with a policy for those employees who decide on their own that they wish to protect themselves with masks. You should also ensure that your break and rest rooms are constantly stocked with hand detergents and towels. Hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol are also advisable in the absence of soap and water, or as an individual safeguard.
In short, a good review of workplace policies coupled with a cleanliness campaign and education of the workplace will go a long way toward mitigating the threat of an H1N1 outbreak. Take heart. In France, people were forced to give up the longstanding courtesy of a peck on the cheek when greeting friends. At least we in North America can still shake hands with others—so long as we immediately go clean them with soap and warm water.