Patients Can Emit Flu Particles into Air During Routine Care

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.―A new study suggests that patients with influenza can emit small virus-containing particles into the surrounding air during routine patient care, potentially exposing healthcare providers to influenza. Published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the findings raise the possibility that current influenza infection control recommendations may not always be adequate to protect providers from influenza during routine patient care in hospitals.

Werner E. Bischoff, MD, PhD, and colleagues from the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina screened 94 patients for flu-like symptoms during the 2010-2011 influenza season. Study participants had been admitted to the emergency department (52 patients) or an inpatient care unit (42 patients) of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where vaccination for influenza is mandatory for healthcare providers.

Nasopharyngeal swabs were collected from each patient. Samples were analyzed by rapid testing and by PCR analysis. Air samples were obtained by placing three six-stage air samplers from within 1 foot, 3 feet, and 6 feet of patients. No aerosol-generating procedures—such as bronchoscopy, sputum induction, intubation, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation—were conducted while air sampling took place. During air sampling, the number of patients’ coughs and sneezes were counted and assessed for severity. Patients also completed a questionnaire at admission to report symptoms and the number of days they were sick.

Of the 94 patients enrolled, 61 patients (65 percent) tested positive for influenza virus. Twenty-six (43 percent) released influenza virus into the air. Five patients (19 percent) emitted up to 32 times more virus than others. This group of patients with influenza, described by the researchers as “super-emitters," suggested that some patients may be more likely to transmit influenza than others. High concentration of influenza virus released into the air was associated with high viral loads in nasopharyngeal samples. Patients who emitted more virus also reported greater severity of illness.

The current belief is that influenza virus is spread primarily by large particles traveling up to a maximum of 3 to 6 feet from an infected person. Recommended precautions for healthcare providers focus on preventing transmission by large droplets and following special instructions during aerosol-generating procedures. In this study, Bischoff and his team discovered that the majority of influenza virus in the air samples analyzed was found in small particles during non-aerosol-generating activities up to a 6-foot distance from the patient’s head, and that concentrations of virus decreased with distance. The study addressed only the presence of influenza-containing particles near patients during routine care, not the actual transmission of influenza infection to others.

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