There is a good deal of frightening talk about avian flu from a wide variety of public health officials, government agents and scaremongers of all types. Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, took to the morning talk shows this week and guaranteed that we’re going to have another pandemic (worldwide epidemic) and avian flu might be the culprit.

Another expert estimated the possible worldwide deaths from avian flu between 5 and 50 million (a rather large range of error on that call). President Bush asked Congress to explore the possibility of having the power to use the military to quarantine cities in the case of an outbreak. Bush cited his reading about the influenza epidemic of 1916 as he raised the fear of it happening again and on his watch.

What is the actual risk associated with cleaning workers cleaning and contracting avian flu in the performance of their duties? For most cleaning workers in the U.S. the risk of avian flu contamination seems to be relatively low.

To mitigate the risk, assess first what is the route of transmission of the pathogen. Avian influenza is transmitted principally from infected live birds to humans. Transmission between humans seems to be very inefficient. Since most cleaning workers don’t handle live birds or fresh eggs, they’re at a low risk.

Still, for those who work around foodservice or poultry operations (or those who visit markets offering live chickens in their free time), they can take some precautions:

  • When buying or handling live chickens, try not to touch them or their droppings.

  • Eggshells may have been contaminated with bird feces. Wash the outside of eggs and wipe them dry before putting them into the refrigerator for storage.

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with liquid soap and water after handling live chickens and eggs.

Also, remember that good general health is a deterrent to disease. Develop good body resistance and have a healthy lifestyle. This can be achieved through a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate rest, reducing stress and no smoking. Observe good personal and environmental hygiene by keeping hands clean and washing properly. Also, remember grandma’s exhortation and cover your nose and mouth with a clean handkerchief while sneezing or coughing. Then wash your hands.


  • Dispose of sputum or body secretions by wrapping them in tissue paper and disposing it into trash containers with liners and lids. Wash your hands afterwards.

  • Maintain good indoor ventilation and cleaning and disinfecting processes.

  • Avoid crowded places with poor ventilation if you are feeling unwell.

This information should provide some relief from the stress associated with the scare talk that is so frequently a part of mass information in this new millennium.

John Walker is a veteran building service contractor; owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City; and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.