Prevention and control of infectious diseases is a central responsibility of the employee health service in areas where they are endemic, where work entails exposure to particular infectious agents to which the population may be singularly susceptible, and where community health services are deficient. In such circumstances, the medical director must act as the public health officer for the workforce, a duty that requires attention to sanitation, potable food and water, potential vectors of infection, appropriate immunization when available, as well as early detection and prompt treatment of infections when they occur.
In well-developed urban areas where employees are relatively healthy, concern over infectious diseases is usually eclipsed by other problems, but prevention and control of infectious diseases remain, nonetheless, important responsibilities of the employee health service. By virtue of their prevalence among all age groups (obviously including those most likely to be employed) and because of their fundamental capacity to be spread through the close contacts characteristic of the typical work environment, infectious diseases are an appropriate target for any employee health promotion programme. However, the efforts of employee health units to respond to the problem they pose are not often discussed. In part, this lack of attention may be attributed to the view that such efforts are a matter of routine, taking the form, say, of seasonal influenza immunization programmes. Additionally, they may be overlooked because they are activities not necessarily associated with broad health promotion initiatives but, instead, are woven into the fabric of the comprehensive employee health programme. For example, the individual counselling and treatment of employees undergoing periodic health evaluation often includes ad hoc health promotion interventions directed at infectious illnesses. Nonetheless, all these represent meaningful activities which, with or without formal designation as a “programme”, may be combined into a cohesive strategy for the prevention and control of infectious diseases.
These activities may be divided among a number of components: dissemination of information and employee education; immunizations; response to outbreaks of infection; protecting the health of travellers; reaching family members; and keeping up-to-date. To illustrate how these may be integrated into a comprehensive employee health programme serving a large urban, largely white-collar workforce, this article will describe the programme at J.P. Morgan and Company, Inc., based in New York City. While it has unique features, it is not dissimilar from those maintained by many large organizations.
J.P. Morgan & Company, Inc.
J.P. Morgan & Company, Inc., is a corporation providing diverse financial services throughout the world. Headquartered in New York City, where approximately 7,500 of its 16,500 employees are based, it maintains offices of various sizes elsewhere in the United States and Canada and in major cities of Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia.
In-house medical departments were present in each of its immediate parent organizations from the early part of this century and, following the amalgamation of J.P. Morgan with Guaranty Trust Company, the employee health unit has evolved to provide not only standard occupational medical activities but a broad range of free services to employees, including periodic health evaluations, immunizations, outpatient primary care, health education and promotion and an employee assistance programme. The effectiveness of the medical department, which is based in New York City, is enhanced by the concentration of the bulk of Morgan’s workforce in a limited number of centrally located facilities.
Dissemination of Information
Dissemination of relevant information is usually the cornerstone of a health promotion programme and it is arguably the simplest approach whether resources are limited or abundant. Providing accurate, meaningful, and understandable information—modified as needed according to employees’ age, language, ethnicity and educational level—serves not only to educate but also to correct misconceptions, inculcate effective prevention strategies and direct employees to appropriate resources within or outside the worksite.
This information can take many forms. Written communications can be directed to employees at their workstations or to their homes, or can be distributed at central worksite locations. These may consist of bulletins or publications obtained from government or voluntary health agencies, pharmaceutical companies or commercial sources, among others or, if resources permit, they can be developed in-house.
Lectures and seminars can be even more effective particularly when they allow employees to pose questions about their individual concerns. On the other hand, they present the drawback of requiring accessibility and a greater time commitment on the part of both employer and staff; they also breach anonymity, which sometimes may be an issue.
Our own experience with the dissemination of health information on HIV infection can be viewed as an example of this activity. The first cases of the illness were reported in 1981 and we first became aware of cases among our employees in 1985. In 1986, in large measure because of local media attention to the problem, the employees in one of our European offices (where no cases of the illness had yet surfaced) requested a programme on AIDS. The speakers included the corporate medical director and an expert on infectious diseases from a local university hospital. The audience consisted of almost 10% of that unit’s entire workforce of whom 80% were women. The emphasis of these and subsequent presentations was on transmission of the virus and on strategies for prevention. As one might assume from the composition of the audience, there was considerable concern about heterosexual spread.
The success of that presentation facilitated the development of a far more ambitious programme at the New York headquarters the following year. A newsletter and brochure anticipated the events with a brief discussion of the illness, posters and other advertisements were utilized to remind employees of the times and places of presentations, and managers strongly encouraged attendance. Because of the commitment of management and general concerns about the illness in the community, we were able to reach between 25 and 30% of the local workforce in the multiple presentations.
These sessions included a discussion by the corporate medical director, who acknowledged the presence of the illness among employees and noted that the corporation was committed to their continuing employment as long as they remained well enough to work effectively. He reviewed the corporation’s policy on life-threatening illnesses and noted the availability of confidential HIV testing through the medical department. An educational videotape on the illness was shown, followed by an expert speaker from the local municipal health department. A period of questions and answers followed and, at the close of the session, everyone was given a packet of information materials on HIV infection and prevention strategies.
The response to these sessions was very positive. At a time when other corporations were experiencing workplace disruptions over employees with HIV infections, Morgan had none. An independent survey of employees (and those of several other corporations with similar programmes) found that programme participants thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to attend such sessions and found the information provided was more helpful than that available to them from other sources (Barr, Waring and Warshaw 1991).
We held similar sessions on HIV infection in 1989 and 1991, but found that attendance diminished with time. We attributed this, in part, to perceived saturation with the subject and, in part, to the illness shifting its impact to the chronically unemployed (in our area); indeed, the number of employees newly infected with HIV who came to our attention dramatically declined after 1991.
Meanwhile, Lyme disease, a bacterial illness transmitted by the bite of the deer tick in suburban and local vacation environments has become increasingly prevalent among our employees. A lecture on this subject supplemented by printed information attracted considerable attention when it was given in 1993. Points emphasized in this presentation included recognition of the illness, testing, treatment and, most important, prevention.
In general, programmes designed to disseminate information whether written or in lecture form, should be credible, easily understandable, practical and relevant. They should serve to elevate awareness, especially with regard to personal prevention and when and how to obtain professional attention. At the same time, they should serve to dissipate any inappropriate anxieties.
Immunizations at the worksite address an important public health need and are likely to provide tangible benefits, not only to the individual recipients but to the organization as well. Many employers in the developed world who do not have an employee health service arrange for outside contractors to come to the worksite to provide a mass immunization programme.
While most immunizations provide protection for many years, influenza vaccine must be administered annually because of continuing changes in the virus and, to a lesser extent, waning patient immunity. Since influenza is a seasonal illness whose infectiousness is typically widespread in the winter months, the vaccine should be administered in the autumn. Those most in need of immunization are older employees and those with underlying illnesses or immune deficiencies, including diabetes and chronic lung, heart and kidney problems. Employees in health care institutions should be encouraged to be immunized not only because they are more likely to be exposed to persons with the infection, but also because their continuing ability to work is critical in the event of a serious outbreak of the illness. A recent study has shown that vaccination against influenza offers substantial health-related and economic benefits for healthy, working adults also. Since the morbidity associated with the illness can typically result in a week or more of disability, often involving multiple employees in the same unit at the same time, there is sufficient incentive for employers to prevent the resultant impact on productivity by offering this relatively innocuous and inexpensive form of immunization. This becomes especially important when public health authorities anticipate major changes in the virus and predict a major epidemic for a given season.
Probably, the main barrier to the success of influenza (or any other) immunization programmes is the reluctance of individuals to participate. To minimize their hesitation, it is important to educate employees on the need for and availability of the vaccine and to make the immunization readily accessible. Notices should go out through all available means, generically identifying all those in special need of immunization emphasizing the relative safety of the vaccine, and explaining the procedure through which it can be obtained.
Time and the inconvenience of travel to visit a personal physician are potent disincentives for many individuals; the most effective programmes will be those that provide immunizations at the worksite during working hours with minimum delays. Finally, cost, a major barrier, should either be held to a minimum or absorbed entirely by the employer or the group health insurance programme.
Contributing to employee acceptance of immunizations are such additional factors as community publicity and incentive programmes. We have found that media reports of a threatening influenza epidemic will regularly increase employee acceptance of the vaccine. In 1993, to encourage all employees to have their vaccination status evaluated and to receive needed immunizations, the medical department at Morgan offered those who accepted these services participation in a lottery in which company stock was the prize. The number of employees seeking immunization in this year was half again as great as the number seen during the same period in the prior year.
Other immunizations advised for healthy adults of typical employment age are diphtheria-tetanus and, possibly measles, mumps, and rubella. Diphtheria-tetanus immunization is recommended every ten years throughout life, assuming that one has had a primary series of immunizations. With this interval, we find immune status most easily confirmed and the vaccine most easily administered during our employees’ periodic health evaluations (see below), although this can also be accomplished in a company-wide immunization campaign such as the one used in the incentive programme mentioned above.
Public health authorities recommend measles vaccine for everyone born after 1956 who does not have documentation of two doses of measles vaccine on or after the first birthday, a history of measles confirmed by a physician, or laboratory evidence of measles immunity. This immunization can readily be administered during a pre-employment or pre-placement health evaluation or in a company-wide immunization campaign.
Public health authorities recommend that everyone have medical documentation of having received rubella vaccine or laboratory evidence of immunity to this illness. Adequate rubella immunization is especially important for health care workers, for whom it is likely to be mandated.
Again, adequate rubella immunity should be ascertained at the time of employment or, absent this possibility, through periodic immunization campaigns or during periodic health evaluations. Effective immunity can be conferred on persons in need of rubella or rubeola vaccine by administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. Serologic testing for immunity can be undertaken to identify the immune status of an individual prior to immunization, but this is not likely to be cost-effective.
In so far as hepatitis B is transmitted through sexual intimacy and by direct contact with blood and other body fluids, initial immunization efforts were directed at populations with elevated risks, such as health professionals and those with multiple sexual partners. Additionally, the increased prevalence of the illness and carrier state in certain geographic areas such as the Far East and sub-Saharan Africa has given priority to immunization of all newborns there and of those who frequently travel to, or remain for extended periods in, those regions. More recently, universal immunization of all newborns in the United States and elsewhere has been proposed as a more effective strategy for reaching vulnerable individuals.
In the work environment, the focus of hepatitis B immunization has been on health care workers because of the risk of their exposure to blood. Indeed, in the United States, government regulation requires informing such personnel and other likely responders to health care emergencies of the advisability of being immunized against hepatitis B, in the context of a general discussion of universal precautions; immunization must then be provided.
Thus, in our setting at Morgan, information about hepatitis B immunization is conveyed in three contexts: in discussions on sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, in presentations to health care and emergency service personnel on the risks and precautions relevant to their health care work, and in interventions with individual employees and their families anticipating assignments in areas of the world where hepatitis B is most prevalent. The immunization is provided in conjunction with these programmes.
This illness, typically transmitted by contaminated food or water, is much more prevalent in developing nations than in industrialized countries. Thus, protection efforts have been directed at travellers to areas of risk or those who have household contact or other very close contact with those newly diagnosed with the illness.
Now that a vaccine to protect against hepatitis A has become available, it is administered to travellers to developing countries and to close contacts of newly diagnosed, documented cases of hepatitis A. If there is insufficient time for antibody levels to develop prior to the departure of travellers, serum immune globulin may be administered simultaneously.
As an effective, safe hepatitis A vaccine is available, immunization efforts can be directed to a significantly larger target group. At a minimum, frequent travellers to and residents in endemic areas should receive this immunization, and food handlers should also be considered for immunization because of the risk of their transmitting the illness to large numbers of people.
Prior to any immunization, careful attention should be paid to possible contraindications, such as hypersensitivity to any vaccine component or, in the case of live vaccines such as measles, mumps, and rubella, immune deficiency or pregnancy, whether present or soon anticipated. Appropriate information on possible vaccine risks should be conveyed to the employee and signed consent forms obtained. The limited possibility of immunization-related reactions should be anticipated in any programme.
Those organizations with existing medical staffs can obviously utilize their own personnel to implement an immunization programme. Those without such personnel may arrange for immunizations to be provided by community physicians or nurses, hospitals or health agencies or by government health agencies.
Response to Outbreaks
Few events arouse as much interest and concern among employees in a particular work unit or an entire organization as awareness that a co-worker has a contagious illness. The essential response of the employee health service to such news is to identify and appropriately isolate those who are ill, both the source case and any secondary cases, while disseminating information about the illness that will allay the anxiety of those who believe that they may have been exposed. Some organizations, hoping to minimize potential anxiety, may limit this dissemination to possible contacts. Others, recognizing that the “grapevine” (informal communication among employees) will not only spread the news but will probably also convey misinformation that could unleash latent anxiety, will seize the event as a unique opportunity to educate the entire workforce about the potential for spread of the disease and how to prevent it. At Morgan, there have been several episodes of this type involving three different diseases: tuberculosis, rubella, and food-borne gastroenteritis.
Tuberculosis is justifiably feared because of the potentially significant morbidity of the illness, especially with the increasing prevalence of multiple drug resistant bacteria. In our experience, the illness has been brought to our attention by news of the hospitalization and definitive diagnosis of the index cases; fortunately at Morgan, secondary cases have been rare and have been limited to skin test conversions only.
Typically with such cases, public health authorities are notified, following which contacts are encouraged to undergo baseline tuberculin skin testing or chest x-rays; the skin tests are repeated ten to twelve weeks later. For those whose skin tests convert from negative to positive in the follow-up testing, chest x-rays are obtained. If the x-ray is positive, employees are referred for definitive treatment; if negative, isoniazid prophylaxis is prescribed.
During each stage of the process, informational sessions are held on both a group and individual basis. Anxiety is typically disproportionate to risk, and reassurance, as well as the need for prudent follow-up, are the primary targets of the counselling.
Morgan’s cases of rubella have been identified on visits to the employee health unit. To avoid further contact, the employees are sent home even if there is only a clinical suspicion of the illness. Following serologic confirmation, usually within 48 hours, epidemiological surveys are conducted to identify other cases while information about the occurrence is disseminated. Although the major targets of these programmes are female employees who may be pregnant and who might have been exposed, the outbreaks have served as an opportunity to verify the immune status of all employees and to offer vaccine to all those who might need it. Again, local public health authorities are advised of these occurrences and their expertise and assistance are utilized in addressing organizational needs.
A single experience with a food-related illness outbreak occurred at Morgan several years ago. It was due to staphylococcal food poisoning which was traced to a food handler with a skin lesion on one of his hands. Over fifty employees who utilized the in-house dining facilities developed a self-limited illness which was characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, appearing approximately six hours after ingesting the offending cold duck salad, and resolving within 24 hours.
In this instance, the thrust of our health education efforts was to sensitize the food handlers themselves to the signs and symptoms of illness that should influence them to leave their work and seek medical attention. Certain managerial and procedural changes were also implemented:
- making supervisors aware of their responsibility to assure that workers with signs of illness receive medical scrutiny
- holding periodic educational sessions for all food service employees to remind them of appropriate precautions
- assuring that disposable gloves are used.
Recently, two neighbouring organizations also experienced food-related illness outbreaks. In one, hepatitis A was transmitted to a number of employees by a food handler in the company dining room; in the other, a number of employees developed salmonella food poisoning after consuming a dessert prepared with raw eggs in a restaurant off the premises. In the first instance, the organization’s educational efforts were directed at the food handlers themselves; in the second, information on various foods prepared from raw eggs—and the potential hazard that this entailed—was shared with the entire workforce.
While the three experiences described above follow the typical health promotion format of reaching out to the entire employee population or, at least, to a substantial subset, much of the health promotion activities of organizations like Morgan with respect to infectious diseases takes place on a one-on-one basis. These include interventions that are made possible by pre-placement, periodic, or retirement health evaluations, inquiries about international travel, and incidental visits to the employee health service.
Individuals examined at the time of employment are typically young and healthy and are unlikely to have had recent medical attention. They are often in need of such immunizations as measles, rubella, or diphtheria-tetanus. Additionally, those scheduled to be placed in areas of potential disease transmission such as in health or food services receive appropriate counselling about the precautions that they should observe.
Periodic medical examinations.
Similarly, the periodic health evaluation provides the opportunity to review immunization status and to discuss the risks that may be associated with specific chronic illnesses and the precautions that should be undertaken. Examples of the latter include the need for annual influenza immunization for individuals with diabetes or asthma and instruction for diabetics on the appropriate care of the feet to avoid local infection.
Recently reported news about infectious diseases should be discussed, particularly with those with known health problems. For example, news of outbreaks of an E. coli infection attributed to eating inadequately cooked ground meat would be of importance to all, while the danger of contracting cryptosporidiosis from swimming in public pools would be especially relevant to those with HIV disease or other immune deficiencies.
Employees who are examined in relation to retirement should be urged to obtain pneumococcal immunization and advised about annual influenza immunization.
The increasing globalization of work assignments coupled with the heightened interest in international travel for pleasure have contributed to a continuing expansion of the population needing protection against infectious diseases not likely to be encountered at home. A pre-travel encounter should include a medical history to reveal any individual health vulnerabilities that may increase the risks associated with the anticipated travel or assignment. A good—and not uncommon—example of this is the pregnant woman considering travel to an environment with chloroquine-resistant malaria, since the alternative forms of malaria prophylaxis may be contraindicated during pregnancy.
Comprehensive information on the infectious illnesses prevalent in the areas to be visited should be provided. This should include methods of transmission of the relevant illnesses, avoidance and prophylactic techniques, and typical symptoms and strategies for obtaining medical attention if they develop. And, of course, indicated immunizations should be provided.
Visits to the employee health service.
In most occupational health settings, employees may receive first aid and treatment for symptoms of illness; in some, as at Morgan, a broad range of primary care services is available. Each encounter offers an opportunity for preventive health interventions and counselling. This includes providing immunizations at appropriate intervals and alerting employee-patients about health precautions relative to any underlying illness or potential exposure. A particular advantage of this situation is that the very fact that the employee has sought this attention suggests that he or she may be more receptive to the advice given than may be the case when the same information is received in a broad educational campaign. The health professional should capitalize on this opportunity by ensuring that appropriate information and necessary immunizations or prophylactic medications are provided.
Reaching family members.
Although the main thrust of occupational health is to assure the health and well-being of the employee, there are many reasons to see that effective health promotion efforts are conveyed to the employee’s family as well. Obviously, most of the objectives noted earlier are equally applicable to other adult members of the household and, while the direct services of the occupational health unit are generally not available to family members, the information can be conveyed home through newsletters and brochures and by word of mouth.
An additional consideration is the health of children, especially in view of the importance of early childhood immunizations. It has been recognized that these immunizations are often overlooked, at least in part, not only by the economically disadvantaged, but even by the children of more affluent US corporate employees. Seminars on well-baby care and printed information on this subject, provided either by the employer or by the employer’s health insurance carrier may serve to minimize this deficiency. Additionally, modifying health insurance coverage to include such “preventive” measures as immunizations should also serve to encourage appropriate attention to this matter.
Although the introduction of antibiotics in the middle of the twentieth century led some to believe that infectious diseases would soon be eliminated, actual experience has been very different. Not only have new infectious diseases appeared (e.g., HIV and Lyme disease), but more infectious agents are developing resistance to formerly effective medications (e.g., malaria and tuberculosis). It is imperative, therefore, that occupational health professionals keep their knowledge of developments in the field of infectious diseases and their prevention current. Although there are many ways of doing this, periodic reports and bulletins emanating from the World Health Organization and national health agencies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are particularly useful.
High among employers’ responsibilities for the health of the workforce is the prevention and control of infectious diseases among employees. This includes identification, isolation and appropriate treatment of individuals with infections together with prevention of their spread to co-workers and dependants and allaying the anxieties of those concerned about potential contact. It also involves education and appropriate protection of employees who may encounter infectious diseases while at work or in the community. The employee health service, as illustrated by the above description of activities of the medical department at J.P. Morgan and Company, Inc., in New York City, may play a central role in meeting this responsibility, resulting in benefit to individual employees, the organization as a whole and the community.