The Real Cost Of Flu

Flu can have serious implications for productivity and profit if significant numbers of the workforce are laid low.

Mandy Collins looks at how workplaces can help keep employees healthy this winter.

Microsoft founder and humanitarian Bill Gates has repeatedly warned that a pandemic of some sort of infectious disease could be the greatest immediate threat to humanity.

“Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature, or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year,” Gates wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider last year. “And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next ten to fifteen years.”

Flu could certainly fit into that prediction – in the past decade the virus has kept doctors and vaccine manufacturers on their toes. A report in the Washington Post on 9 February this year had US medical experts predicting one of the worst flu seasons in history: “This year’s flu season is turning out to be so intense that the number of people seeking care at doctors’ offices and emergency rooms is almost as high as levels reported during the peak of the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic,” federal officials have said.

Mogologolo Phasha, Independent Community Pharmacy Association chairman, says: “Many people die every year because of complications from flu, with most of the deaths occurring in high-risk people. These are pregnant women, children under the age of five, people older than 65, those with HIV/AIDS and chronic-disease sufferers.”

Businesses cannot afford to ignore the impact flu might have on their workforce.

Figures released by Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA) and Statistics South Africa late last year showed that employee absenteeism costs the South African economy between R12-billion and R16-billion annually, and about 14% of absenteeism is related to flu and upper respiratory tract infections. And it’s not only the big corporates that feel the pinch.

The figures show that on average 15% to 30% of staff could be absent on any given day, which means that small businesses often feel the effects more than bigger corporates, which can absorb those kinds of staff deficits.

 “Flu is very contagious and more so in the workplace due to confined office spaces,” says Praenisha Ramnath, pharmacovigilance manager at iNova Pharmaceuticals. “Companies cannot afford to ignore the real cost of flu, and should encourage their staff to implement small preventive measures such as washing or sanitising their hands regularly, avoiding contact with allergens, reducing stress and encouraging employees to stay home when they are ill to avoid spreading the virus to their colleagues.”

As with many infectious diseases, prevention is better than cure, and Ramnath says vaccines are one of the best weapons in the fight against flu. And, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, the more people who are vaccinated, the less chance of the virus taking hold.

We don’t yet know just how severe the flu in South Africa will be this year, but businesses can flu-proof themselves best by making flu prevention an intrinsic part of their workplace wellness strategy.

 Cold or flu?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, colds and flu can have similar symptoms, but there are some differences:

Flu has a rapid onset and is usually accompanied by symptoms that include a fever, aches, fatigue and weakness, as well as possible headaches and chest discomfort and coughing.

A cold is more gradual in onset and is usually accompanied by sneezing, a stuffy nose and a sore throat.

Image: ©Shutterstock - 551399881

Image: ©Shutterstock - 551399881

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