Avian flu poses minimal risk to human resources

Work-from-home strategies and quarantines for staff travelling internationally have been the focus of contingency planners preparing for the possible transmission of avian flu from birds to humans in the UK. But risk analyst professor David Seddon believes the risk to companies’ human resources is minimal.

by Risk analyst professor David Seddon, University of East Anglia
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Seddon says risk managers should focus on managing the flow of “appropriate” information to staff and offering concerned employees medical advice. “It’s an issue of providing appropriate information, urging employees not to panic and referring them to doctors for advice as it’s a medical issue.

“What we have at the moment is panic. Bird flu actually started developing and spreading two and half years ago in Asia, and massive deaths of poultry resulted through death and culling. Most companies should have been aware of it then, and had they received good information at the time, they could have had low level risk strategies already in place.”

Seddon adds that more than half the total human death toll to date occurred in Asia when the virus first emerged. For the most part, humans have contracted the virus following very close contact with sick birds.

As of 13 February 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 169 cases of H5N1 in humans in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Turkey and Iraq, leading to 91 deaths. There may have been examples of human-to-human transmission, but so far not in the form which could fuel a pandemic. The mortality rate presently stands at around 50% of confirmed cases.

Nonetheless, the potential risk to human life has been whipped up so companies must take precautionary measures to manage the perceived risk, Seddon says.

“Although any animal virus can transmit itself to humans, the main risk is to domestic poultry. In these days of global pandemics, we should start learning lessons from the beginning and analyse what happened to different production systems. It is typical of Europe to ignore what happened in Asia – for small scale entrepreneurs it was economic ruin but nobody seemed to notice.”

Following the discovery this month of a dead swan carrying a form of the H5 virus, the Scottish Executive has imposed a protection zone of a minimum of three kilometres radius and a surveillance zone of 10 kilometres around Cellardyke in Fife.

Keepers of birds in the protection zone have been instructed to isolate their birds from wild birds by taking them indoors wherever possible. Measures to restrict the movement of poultry, eggs and poultry products from the zones have also been brought into effect.


1. Bird flu was thought only to infect birds until the first human cases were seen in Hong Kong in 1997.

2. Humans catch the disease through close contact with live infected birds.

3. Birds excrete the virus in their faeces, which dry and become pulverised, and are then inhaled.

4. Symptoms are similar to other types of flu - fever, malaise, sore throats and coughs. People can also develop conjunctivitis.

5. Researchers are now concerned because scientists studying a case in Vietnam found the virus can affect all parts of the body, not just the lungs.

6. Because it is carried by birds, there is no way of preventing its spread. But that does not mean it will be passed to domestic flocks. Experts say proper poultry controls - such as preventing wild birds getting in to poultry houses - which are present in the UK, should prevent that happening.
In addition, they say monitoring of the migratory patterns of wild birds should provide early alerts of the arrival of infected flocks - meaning they could be targeted on arrival.

Source: Risk analyst professor David Seddon

Review by Abi Newman

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