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March 23, 2022

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Avian Influenza

How to protect workers against Avian Influenza

Every winter, we witness outbreaks of Avian Influenza – also known as “Avian Flu” or simply “Bird Flu” – which may spread to humans as well. This year is no different as various outbreaks of high pathogenic strains of the virus have already been reported across the world.

In this article, EMEA Marketing Specialist at DuPont Personal Protection, Figen Ersezer, informs businesses on how to best protect workers against Avian Influenza, with poultry farm workers being at high risk.

What is Avian Influenza?

Avian Influenza is a disease that is carried by wild migrating birds and spread to poultry.

In the northern hemisphere, the first cases are generally recorded in late autumn with the peak occurring between December and February.

The disease is not caused by a single virus, but rather a collection of viruses, with the main differentiator between the existing subtypes being variations in the two viral surface proteins.

Researchers have identified 16 different hemagglutinin (H) proteins and nine different neuraminidase (N) proteins. This means that there are 144 different subtypes of the virus, each of which is designated by a naming convention that includes the protein number, for example, H5N1 or H7N9.

Another way to differentiate between different versions of the virus is by grouping them according to their ability to produce disease in poultry. Low pathogenicity Avian Influenza (LPAI) occurs naturally in wild birds. LPAI causes mild or no symptoms and is the least dangerous grouping. High-pathogenicity Avian Influenza (HPAI) spreads more rapidly and results in a higher death rate. HPAI is often fatal in chickens and turkeys.

Why are workers at risk from Avian Influenza?

While Avian Influenza does not easily transfer from animals to humans, HPAI can spread by direct or indirect contact with nasal, oral, or faecal secretions from infected poultry. When the virus does migrate to humans, it’s often from extensive direct contact with infected birds.

Poultry farm workers are particularly vulnerable to HPAI due to their contact with birds through activities like collecting and handling, transporting, and culling and disposal of infected birds. Disinfecting or disposing of contaminated clothing can also put workers at risk unless adequate precautions are taken.

The potential consequences of HPAI transmission to humans are severe. HPAI is considered a public health concern because of the potential for the virus to mutate into a form that could spread from human to human.

Regulations for workers exposed to Avian Influenza

Regulators in all regions susceptible to Avian Influenza set protocols and requirements for workers who may be exposed.

These include the following main principles for workers:

  • Register with the local animal health authority or public health authority in collaboration with the animal health authority
  • Wear appropriate PPE including clothes, gloves and boots, goggles and masks
  • Receive training for disinfection and disposal of potentially contaminated items
  • Maintain excellent personal hygiene
  • Monitor temperature twice daily for fever (>38C) and influenza symptoms for seven days after the last contact with contaminated poultry/environments
  • Consider vaccination with seasonal influenza vaccine to minimise influenza-like illnesses (ILI) in exposed persons so that H5 infections can be easily identified.

PPE is key

There are two main reasons why PPE is a critical element of protection in workplaces that may be exposed to Avian Influenza. Firstly, PPE helps keep workers safe from infection and prevents the spread of virus to uninfected areas. Secondly, it protects people involved in cleaning and disinfection from contact with hazardous chemicals.

When it comes to PPE, protective clothing is an essential line of defence against the Avian Flu. It must provide a barrier against infective agents in line with the EN 14126 standard. It must also keep workers safe from disinfectants and other inorganic chemicals.

Depending on the task carried out by a worker, and the severity of the risk, there are different types of coveralls to choose from. Various accessories including gowns, aprons, sleeves, and over boots can also be selected to enhance protection.

Light-weight, permeable coveralls are generally recommended for tasks involving limited contact with poultry and the use of light disinfectants.

Coveralls provide a high barrier to infective agents as well as a high barrier to numerous inorganic chemicals and disinfectants.

Avian Influenza continues to pose a threat to workers around the world, particularly during the winter months. Selecting the most appropriate PPE, including protective clothing, is critical to keeping workers safe while preventing the spread of the disease to the wider population.

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