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Risk of respiratory infections in health care workers: lessons on infection control emerge from the SARS outbreak.

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Travellers' Health and Vaccination Centre, Department of Infectious Diseases, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 11 Jalan Tan Tock Seng, Singapore 308433.


Close proximity of persons together with handling of human secretions (eg respiratory secretions) make health care workers (HCW) particularly vulnerable to transmission of droplet-transmitted respiratory infections. This was tragically highlighted during the international outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 with attack rates of more than 50% in HCW. The purpose of this article is to review common airborne and droplet-transmitted bacterial and viral respiratory tract infections with regard to their impact on health care workers. Lessons need to be learned from the SARS epidemic. The three main strategies to prevent or control occupationally acquired infections are relatively simple and cost-effective-droplet and contact precautions and for some pathogens also vaccination. Enforced implementation of stringent droplet precautions during the SARS crisis should be maintained; and this will most likely have a major additional impact on other nosocomial infections. Employee health services should proactively and creatively devise delivery systems that enhance compliance with vaccination programs for all health care workers. Hospital surveillance should be expanded to all respiratory diseases to facilitate early detection of nosocomial outbreaks, and this should also include surveillance of all HCW. Integrated syndromic and virological surveillance systems set up during the SARS epidemic will also further our understanding of other respiratory infections in the hospital setting. Even if pursuing early diagnosis for unspecific respiratory illnesses is expensive, identification of the causative organism may reduce unnecessary isolation, contact tracing and anxiety, in particular during an outbreak situation. We have a duty to protect our health care workers.

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