Monday, April 07, 2003

Peril on disease front lines

This growth in SARS and the message in this article brings back not-very-fond reminders of the early days of AIDS before we know what caused it or how it was spread. That was well before the blood-borne pathogens standards, when it was assumed that health care workers would unthinkingly dedicate themselves to care for the sick without a (selfish) thought for their own safety.

Peril on disease front lines

Heroism: Public-health practitioners often go in harm's way to help the sick and solve mysteries of deadly infectious illnesses, making the world a safer place.

They died of the very diseases they were trying to conquer: one in Cuba of yellow fever, another in Africa of the Ebola virus, the most recent in Thailand of the mysterious flulike illness that has spread around the globe.

The death late last month of the World Health Organization's Carlo Urbani - one of the first doctors to identify the disease known as SARS, before contracting it himself - brings a sobering reminder: Those on the front lines of the effort to make the world a healthier place often put themselves in harm's way.

In truth, health care workers are a dedicated bunch of people who are often only too willing to put themselves at risk to care for their patients -- and often pay the price in career or even life-threatening diseases like HIV, Hepatitis, TB, or in disabling back injuries. But the bottom line is that every worker -- even a health care worker -- has a right to a safe workplace, and an expectation that their employer will do everything possible to make the work environment safe.

Health care workers are not the only ones to possibly face SARS as part of their job. The AFL-CIO's "Work in Progress" reports that:

Concern about the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) aboard aircraft prompted the Flight Attendants to ask the Federal Aviation Administration for an emergency order requiring airlines to provide flight attendants with masks and gloves. Minimal contact is enough to spread the disease, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The union also wants appropriate instructions to flight attendants on dealing with passengers exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

In the words of the song: "We just came to work here, we didn't come to die."