Preparing for and Protecting Against an Avian Influenza Outbreak

          For years, scientists have been studying avian influenza viruses that cause disease in humans.  The H5N1 virus has been studied most since it has killed millions of poultry overseas and has caused disease in over 300 people that have had close contact with infected birds.  Although it has not frequently infected humans, very serious illness and death can occur when people become infected.

          In the United States, no cases of H5N1 infection have been reported in either birds or humans.  Although the H5N1 virus only rarely passes between humans, there are concerns that it might change into a form that is readily transmissible between humans and could then cause the next influenza pandemic.  Therefore, in preparation for a possible H5N1 outbreak in the United States, employees should be aware of how they can protect themselves if the occasion should arise.

          Poultry and laboratory employees, animal and food handlers, and health care workers would be among those particularly in danger should an H5N1 outbreak occur.  Here are some steps that can be taken by those in the above industries to reduce the risk:

  • Know the symptoms of avian influenza, including fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, diarrhea, eye infections, pneumonia, and severe respiratory diseases;
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, for 15 to 20 seconds, preferably with soap and water;
  • When possible, avoid contact with sick poultry or surfaces soiled with discharges from their mouths or beaks, or with feces; and
  • Use appropriate personal protective equipment including gloves, safety goggles, shoe covers, and respiratory protection when handling sick poultry.

          OSHA’s Safety and Health Topics Page on Avian Flu is a resource for information on preparing for and protecting against an avian influenza outbreak.  The items featured on the page, such as OSHA’s Guidance Update on Protecting Employees from Avian Flu Viruses (English/Spanish) and OSHA’s Avian Flu Fact Sheet (English/Spanish), are references for preventing exposure to hazards associated with H5N1 in the event of an outbreak in the United States.