South Africa has, thus far, experienced a mild winter. But when the cold really hits, many people might contract the flu. Most will brush flu aside as being a mild health upset. A running nose and continuous sneezing is regarded as a personal discomfort. They couldn't be more wrong.

By the time World War I came to an end in 1918, nearly 37 million people had lost their lives. The unconditional surrender by the German forces was greeted with a sigh of relief by people in many countries, and particularly those in countries where battles had been fought. Allied forces, assembled from countries all over the globe, were hailed for their contribution to end the German onslaught and bring the war to an end. If society had known then what else the allied forces had brought with, the jubilation would have quickly come to an end.

We now know that a major allied staging and hospital camp in France was the source of, what is ultimately known as, the Spanish flu which hit the world shortly after the Versailles Treaty was signed. According to historians, the pandemic affected close to 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million and, contrary to previous outbreaks, killed previously healthy young adults in particular.

Science has improved significantly since 1918 and no similar outbreak, or impact, has occurred since. But that doesn't mean that it couldn't happen again.

The flu is a highly contagious disease. It is spread when, infected droplets in the air (spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes) are inhaled, or when people come in direct contact with an infected person’s secretions, either by kissing, touching or sharing objects such as spoons and forks. Flu can also be transferred by touching smooth surfaces such as doorknobs, handles, television remotes, computer keyboards, and telephones. When people, subsequently, touch their nose, eyes, or mouth, the flu virus gets absorbed.

As there are many places and surfaces that are touched in the workplace by multiple employees and visitors every day, health and safety practitioners should do regular risk assessments that are aimed in particular at identifying the risks of spreading contagious diseases, and flu in particular. The risk assessment should focus on: identifying places and surfaces where the virus could be transferred and consider ways of preventing this from happening. As it will be difficult to come up with preventative measures for every risk identified it is advised to also draw up a contingency plan. Even though some institutions and facilities, at first sight, are considered to be at higher risk, it is also advised to take any risk seriously as, what is considered as being a mild flu initially, can rapidly cause a devastating impact.

Don't under-estimate the impact of the flu. The 1918 pandemic is referred to as the Spanish flu and considered by many as an outbreak that was restricted to Spain alone. In hindsight, this is impossible as between 50 to 100 million people were killed by the outbreak. In 1918 the authorities decided to call the flu the Spanish flu as they didn't want to upset the world's population which was still recovering from the impact of World War I. To maintain morale, wartime censors minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States but newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain. This created a false impression of Spain as being especially hard hit. If they would had identified the risks immediately and spread the word as fast as the virus had spread much tragedy could have been avoided. Don't make the same mistake as the sensors in 1918 did!

Posted date: 18th Jun 2014
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