OHS Canada Magazine

Going Viral on H1N1

December 1, 2009
By Angela Stelmakowich & Jean Lian
Health & Safety

It has arrived -- and not a moment too soon for people concerned about the potential health toll that H1N1 could exact this flu season.

It has arrived — and not a moment too soon for people concerned about the potential health toll that H1N1 could exact this flu season.

Health officials here at home and elsewhere are touting the need to get vaccinated against so-called swine flu to avoid potential adverse effects on everyday lives, health service availability and workplaces depleted by ill or panicked workers.

In late October, shots became available — first for the high-risk few; later fanning out to the general public. Health care workers involved in pandemic response and service delivery were among those at the front of the vaccination queue.

Reviewed by public health officials from across the country, the priority list also includes people younger than 65 with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, children six months to younger than five years, those living in remote and isolated communities, and household contacts and caregivers of high-risk individuals who cannot be immunized, notes the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in Ottawa. PHAC also suggests immunizations for emergency responders (including police and firefighters), as well as poultry and swine workers.

Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist in occupational health and safety at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ontario, says it “makes sense” that health care workers are on the priority list. “In a general workplace, you are farther than six or 10 feet from a sick person,” Chappel notes. “But when you are caring for your patients, you can be very, very close.”


Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist with Toronto’s University Health Network, says getting a shot is “the most important thing” in preventing the spread of the H1N1 virus. Other critical preventive measures include early identification of patients who might have flu, availability of respiratory protection, and use of protective gear to prevent other employees from being exposed to secretions, Dr. Hota says.


And staying clear of secretions and contaminated surfaces brings an old standby into play: proper hand hygiene. The rules are clear when it comes to avoiding the dreaded flu — be that seasonal or H1N1 — at work, home or play.

Noting that hand washing is the “single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections,” the CCOHS recommends that doing so demands enough soap, enough hand rubbing to create friction, and enough rinsing under running water.

Preventive steps are key because H1N1’s second wave is here and it’s a safe bet that work forces will be depleted. “It is very easy to see the large financial impact that protecting your employees has on your bottom line,” Randy McCaig, director of Employee Wellness Programs at Medisys Health Group in Montreal, says in a statement. “A sick employee can represent thousands of lost dollars in the form of decreased productivity, replacement costs and opportunity costs.”

Medisys cites a University of Minnesota study that estimates flu immunization in healthy working adults results in 43 per cent fewer sick leave days for upper respiratory illness.

Employers are required to take reasonable precautions to protect worker health and safety on the job. Information from Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour in Regina advises employers to monitor H1N1 facts being released by health agencies and to provide employees with up-to-date hazard information, training on safe work practices, and recommended supplies.


Whatever the work environment, health officials recommend getting immunized. Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, says in a statement that “even if some of the population has already contracted H1N1 so far, we know that most British Columbians have not been infected yet and can still benefit from receiving the vaccine.”

For those who do contract swine flu, a little clarification may be in order. In August, the World Health Organization reported “worldwide, most patients infected with the pandemic virus continue to experience typical influenza symptoms and fully recover within a week, even without any form of medical treatment. Healthy patients with uncomplicated illness need not be treated with antivirals.”

British Columbia authorities point out that prescriptions for antivirals, such as Tamiflu, should only be filled once symptoms surface. “Tamiflu is intended for treatment and not prevention,” explains Dr. Fawziah Marra, pharmacy director at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver.

The “supply is to be accessed by patients only if they are experiencing moderate to severe influenza-like symptoms, such as fever, cough and fatigue,” Dr. Kendall adds. Antivirals can be used for mild symptoms if at risk of complications.

Beyond H1N1 is flu of the seasonal variety — which in and of itself is capable of delivering a powerful hit. “By getting the seasonal and pandemic vaccines together, the risk from both sorts of influenza can be reduced at the same time,” Dr. Monika Naus, director of immunization at the BC Centre for Disease Control, suggests in a statement.

Angela Stelmakowich is editor of OHS CANADA; Jean Lian is assistant editor of OHS CANADA.


“In a general workplace, you are farther than six or 10 feet from a sick person,” Chappel notes.


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