H7N9 Bird Flu Puts Custodial Mission in Limelight

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In the world of scientists who ask questions like, "What will the next global pandemic look like?" there are often many unknowns.

In China, this week, the Xinhua News Agency announced a new strain of bird influenza has infected at least 14 persons there since February with five fatalities. Although there are some features of this outbreak that have scientists more concerned than other recent threats for bird or swine flu, there has been no general alarm sounded.

Here is a quick version of what your custodial department might want to think about with pandemic headlines once again in the news:

1. Regardless of the source, there have been many pandemics over time, and there will be more in the future. Preparation should be on-going, just as with other risks like fire or tornado. Ignoring the risk makes confusion likely when there is an outbreak and will almost assure an inadequate response once a threat is imminent. 

2. The theory that businesses and schools can just shut down and "wait it out" is a questionable viewpoint, however one often voiced. If this influenza, with a 36% initial mortality rate, were to suddenly spread rapidly, it would likely be active for many months and come in more than one wave, perhaps across more than one year. To handle the problem by closing down, the country's economic engine would grind to a disastrous state well before the threat subsided and students would lose more time than could be made up over the summer.

3. Because schools and businesses may close down in a pandemic for short periods - perhaps one to two weeks out of a several-month peak period - that leaves a several-week or month period janitorial and custodial will have special challenges they need to be prepared for.

With this particular virus: 

1. No vaccine exists for the current strain, but the World Health Organization is doing the preparatory work so as to be able to start the process if needed. However, under normal circumstances, the pandemic might go on for several months before the first vaccinations could take place.
2. There seems to be no person-to-person transmission, to date. A mutation could change that. The more contact with humans, the more likely such a mutation becomes.
3. The foul that are infected do not seem to become sick, making it much harder to detect what birds are infected. This makes control harder. It also raises a question about whether this virus, which shows markers for being much closer to one already predisposed to infect mammals, came from birds or originated in a mammal species. Again, human-to-human transmission does not seem to be occurring at this time.
4. The virus shows some tendencies that make it appear a candidate to infect swine. The famous swine influenza of 1918 killed more around the world than did the World War going on at the time. That flu originated at Fort Riley, Kansas. Because swine and human biology are more similar than bird and human systems, this would make eventual human transmission more likely.

Knowing how to cope with pandemic, regional epidemic, or just the seasonal influenza takes a few adjustments in how you clean, what you use in that process and how you educate to modify behavior. Viruses are often relatively simple to control before they enter the body. After infection takes place, costs and human misery skyrocket. 

The custodial function today has an important and central health component. It also has an important budget impact, because cure is much more expensive than prevention. It is important that all janitorial departments reevaluate their mission to include cleaning for health measures that go well beyond just having disinfectants for use in the restroom.

Download this guide to help you think about the pandemic planning process.