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Ideally, sick workers should be told to stay at home

Workplaces fighting spread of infectious diseases

You only have to look at how productivity declines when the flu strikes the workplace, or how a restaurant can be affected by an announcement that customers could have been

exposed to E. coli or hepatitis in order to recognize that infectious diseases are an important issue in the workplace.

Dr. Risa Webb, an infectious disease medical consultant with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), said the attitudes of supervisors are important to preventing

the spread of flu and colds in the workplace. Supervisors who encourage people to come to work even if they are sick put the rest of workers — and customers — at risk for

getting ill.

“If a person with the flu doesn’t stay home, you may end up with several people sick in some offices,” said Webb. “Don’t push people to come to work when they are ill. And

encourage workers to get flu shots.”

Food borne illnesses major concern

Infectious diseases are particularly a concern in food establishments. Besides the potential for spreading colds and the flu, the spread of hepatitis A is a concern along with proper

food preparation to prevent food-borne illnesses from pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.

Simply encouraging frequent hand washing is important to all kinds of businesses.

“In the office setting, most colds and viruses are spread by a handshake or other hand-to-hand contact,” said Dr. David Duddleston, clinical assistant professor of medicine,

University of Mississippi Medical Center. “To prevent illness, it’s a matter of using those practices such as frequent hand washing as opposed to just knowing about them.”

Duddleston recalls a graphic demonstration of how hand contact spreads disease. He attended a lecture where an infectious disease expert shook hands with everyone as they

entered the room. The expert had a dye on his hands that was only visible under a UV light. After the normal lights were turned out and the UV light was turned on, all through

the audience people’s faces lit up with the dye.

“It was a good demonstration that we are always touching our face, nose and eyes, and that is how the virus gets in — through tear ducts and contact with the nose,” Duddleston


He added that an old wives’ tale is that viruses are spread by door knobs, telephones and commode seats. In fact, viruses don’t live long on inanimate surfaces.

Flu, a respiratory virus, is spread more thorough the air when people cough or sneeze. Duddleston said another old wives’ tale is that the flu shot can give you the flu. He said

that isn’t true, and that making flu shots available at the workplace is a good idea. Since it takes an average of seven to 10 days to recover from the flu, a flu shot is a good way to

prevent loss of productivity. It also protects workers’ families.

“If I’m exposed at work and I’ve had a flu shot, I won’t bring home the flu,” he said. “So you are protecting yourself and your family by resisting the initial exposure.”

Since the flu season in Mississippi peaks in February and March, and the vaccine will start to work within two to three weeks after getting the shot, it isn’t too late to get flu


Duddleston said that people who fly frequently are also at greater risk for illness because of being confined with a lot of people in a small space. Since most airline tickets must be

purchased in advance and are non-refundable, people are likely to fly even if they are sick.

“The risk of exposure while flying is high,” Duddleston said. “There are medications available to prevent the flu during a high-risk exposure, and people should discuss that with

their physicians.”

There are two types of medicines available to treat the flu this year. Both are most effective if taken soon after the illness is contracted.

Progress being made

Duddleston said overall the risk of infectious diseases in the U.S. is lower now that it has been for a long time. That is particularly true with the blood supply because of testing

for HIV and hepatitis.

“The blood supply is safer than it has been for 15 to 20 years,” he said.

Progress is also being made to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. Mike McAlpin, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, said frequent inspections of poultry

processing operations help prevent contamination particularly by focusing close attention to critical control points where there are possibilities for bacterial contamination.

And a new vaccine is under development that would prevent chickens from getting salmonella. McAlpin said in the future chickens will probably be vaccinated for salmonella and

other bacteria just as children now receive vaccinations for small pox and other diseases.

“If it all works out the way we hope, it could virtually eliminate salmonella infections in poultry flocks,” McAlpin said. “It could totally prevent that.”

Although salmonella used to be the bacteria that most often caused food-borne illnesses, in recent years E. coli outbreaks have been more common and have received a lot of

attention. Recently there have been 14 cases of E. coli illnesses in Jackson County. A 15-month-old child died from the illness.

Dr. Mary Currier, state epidemiologist, MSDH, said E. coli is more dangerous for children than adults. The source of the E. coli contamination has not been determined. Besides

the cases in Jackson County, most of which didn’t result in serious illnesses, there have been a couple cases in Brookhaven, several in Hattiesburg and one in Tylertown

identified in recent months.

Currier said it isn’t unusual that the source of the E. coli hasn’t been determined. Often the source is never found.

“The most important thing to know is that you should never eat hamburger that is not completely cooked whether at home or in a restaurant,” Currier said. “Fruits and vegetables

should be washed thoroughly. This can also be spread from person-to-person so hand washing is important, as well.”

Currier said she hopes the recent publicity about the E. coli outbreak has heightened awareness of food safety.

Another suggestion for the workplace is making sure that a refrigerator is available if employees bring their lunch to work or if food is prepared for employees in the workplace.

For more information on infectious diseases, see the Health Department Web site at www.mshd.state.ms.us and the Web site for the Centers for Disease Control at


Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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