Employers Should Be Prepared as Ebola Outbreak Grows

By Roy Maurer Aug 1, 2014

Employers should educate employees working in areas threatened by the Ebola virus about how to prevent the spread of the disease, and should be ready to respond if an employee becomes sick, according to International SOS, a global medical and travel security services firm.

West Africa’s Ebola outbreak is the deadliest in recorded history, infecting 1,200 people and killing over 700 so far.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel advisory July 31, 2014, for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in response to the deadly outbreak. The CDC recommends against nonessential travel to the region. “The bottom line is Ebola is worsening in West Africa,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden during a press conference. “The current outbreak is bad. It’s the biggest, the most complex, and the first time it’s been present in this region.” Turning back the surge of the outbreak could take three to six months, he said.

The shared border among Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia appears to be the epicenter of the outbreak, according to the CDC. Ebola recently spread into Nigeria, where a traveler from Liberia was recently diagnosed with the virus. Frieden said containment efforts are hampered by the affected countries’ dysfunctional health care systems, the population’s lack of understanding of the disease, and hostility toward health care workers in the region.

The U.S. Peace Corps announced the evacuation of its 340 volunteers from the area, and Swiss multinational Nestle said it is monitoring the situation and following all precautions for its 6,000 employees in the region.

Dr. Robert Quigley, regional medical director for International SOS, said that since March, the travel security firm has received hundreds of requests for advice on the outbreak—and that the number of those requests were up 400 percent in June compared to the total figure in May—from client organizations with employees traveling in the area, or living and working in West Africa as expatriates.

Spread via Contact with Bodily Fluids

Ebola is a severe, often fatal illness, with a death rate of up to 90 percent. The origin of the virus is unknown but is believed to be carried by rats, bats and other animals and spread to humans through contact with bodily fluids, according to the World Health Organization. Infection among people occurs from direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood or other bodily fluids or secretions of infected people.

Ebola first appeared in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and simultaneously in a remote area of Sudan. There is no cure for the disease. Treatment relies on the strength of the individual immune system.

Educate Your Workforce, Prepare a Response

International SOS advises companies to educate their employees now about how Ebola spreads and how to prevent infection.

“Instruct personnel to avoid situations where they may be exposed to Ebola, and to stay home from work if they feel ill,” Quigley said. “The risk of infection with Ebola is generally low if you avoid high-risk activities including having contact with ill people, with the bodies of people who have died from Ebola, with sick or dead wildlife, or with bush meat,” he said. Bush meat is meat from wild animals commonly found in West and Central Africa. Quigley also advised against visiting affected areas or attending funerals, and paying strict attention to hygiene.

In addition to educating employees, companies should review their emergency preparedness plans on how to respond if an employee falls sick on the job. The plan should include communicating with other employees, setting up an isolation room, transporting ill employees to the appropriate medical authorities, protecting employees who come into contact with those who are ill, setting up a disinfecting program, and monitoring contact tracing. Organizations could also consider screening employees at the worksite.

HR should monitor developments closely and be able to communicate with deployed or traveling employees as the situation remains fluid, Quigley said. “A tracking solution that enables HR to identify and communicate with at-risk personnel in affected countries would be useful at this time so a text message or e-mail can be sent to them quickly. Also, HR should turn to their medical assistance provider who can give medical advice 24/7 on this rapidly changing situation based on their specific needs. Travel advice is critical as countries begin to take mitigation strategies to contain the disease,” he said.

As the outbreak continues, the affected nations are increasing their surveillance efforts to detect cases, he said. Screenings, quarantines, border closures and flight bans are all in effect in the affected countries. Evacuation is always an option as well, based on the circumstances.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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