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Are You Ready for the Bird Flu?

By Barbara K. Garrison, M.S., CHMM, CET, Safex

We have been hearing a lot about the threat of a bird flu pandemic have you thought about what implications such an event would have on funeral home operations? Current projections estimate that 1.9 million Americans could die from the disease if it evolves to the point that it can be spread from person-to-person. The risk of transmission from remains to funeral home employees is probably minimal, but what about interacting with family members and mourners who may carry and spread the infection? How do you balance the need to protect yourself from the disease with providing the emotional and physical support that is the very essence of your profession? There are no easy answers but I have a few suggestions.

One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to appreciate how the disease is spread. Human influenza is thought to transmit primarily via large respiratory droplets that are produced when people cough or sneeze. When these droplets are inhaled by another person, the infection can be transmitted. Although inhalation is the primary route of exposure, the disease may be able to spread through other means scientists don't have enough information yet to know for certain. These other means could include ingestion (e.g. from eating food contaminated with the virus) or absorption (e.g. through the mucous membranes or non-intact skin).

Suggestions for Protecting Yourself
* When performing removals and handling the remains of individuals who had the disease, make sure their mouth is covered or wear a disposable particulate respirator. NOTE: Employees who wear respirators must be fit tested for the model and size respirator they wear and must be trained to fit-check for facepiece to face seal. Also, the employer is required to develop a written respiratory protection program if they require employees to wear a respirator.

* When possible, wear eye protection (goggles or face shields) during removals and during embalming.
* Wear gloves when handling remains and wash your hands frequently, especially after removing gloves and after shaking hands with people who may have the virus. Wash your hands with antimicrobial soap and water or alcohol-based hand gel.
* Do not eat food that may have been contaminated and do not eat food from a "community" serving dish that may have been contaminated (e.g. unwrapped mints from a restaurant or snacks provided in a restaurant bar).

Suggestions for Protecting Others
* Cover your nose/mouth when coughing or sneezing.
* Use tissues (not a handkerchief) to contain respiratory secretions and dispose of them immediately after use.
* Wash you hands frequently, especially if you have sneezed, blown your nose, etc.
* Provide tissues and no-touch receptacles for used tissue disposal for employees and visitors.
* Provide alcohol-based hand rub near tissue and in other convenient locations throughout the funeral home. Where sinks are available, ensure that supplies for hand washing (i.e., soap, disposable towels) are consistently available.
* Although it may seem alarming at first, you should offer surgical masks to persons who are coughing. If the pandemic truly occurs, you will find that people will voluntarily wear masks to protect themselves and others.

If the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) develop any additional guidelines, we will pass them along to you. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like additional information, contact Safex, toll-free, at 1-866-723-3987.

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