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Avian influenza increases need for protective fabrics

June 1st, 2009 / By: / Advanced Textiles

Demand grows for anti-virus masks and protective clothing.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a worldwide avian influenza outbreak is not a matter of “if” but “when.” The recent outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu) has renewed concerns about the the difficulty of containing influenza viruses. In spite of the global economic downturn, the market for products that prevent and combat influenza is growing. Japanese specialty fabrics companies are at the forefront in demonstrating the role the industry can play in mitigating an outbreak, including H1N1, avian flu and seasonal viruses.

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, is an infectious disease caused by poultry influenza A viruses. The infection can cause a wide spectrum of symptoms mainly in birds ranging from mild illness (low pathogenic form) to a rapidly fatal disease capable of causing a severe epidemic (high pathogenic form). Avian influenza viruses do not normally infect humans; however, if given the opportunity, those viruses can mutate to become a new virus more easily transmissible from bird to human and then from human to human, raising the possibility of an influenza pandemic. Among the various avian influenza viruses is a relatively new virus, H5N1, which is highly pathogenic and causes generalized infection and multi-organ failure, resulting in a high number of bird fatalities

A pandemic’s impact

With a growing global population and easier, faster and more affordable transportation, more people and goods are moving all over the world. Considering the highly pathogenic nature of one form of the H5N1 virus, concern about a possible large-scale H5N1 pandemic is not unwarranted. According to the WHO web site, “under the best circumstances, assuming that the new virus causes mild disease, the world could still experience an estimated two million to 7.4 million deaths.” In a worst-case scenario, the World Bank estimates 71 million human deaths and an economic loss of more than $3 trillion worldwide, dropping the global GDP by 4.8 percent.

In this scenario, hospitals and clinics would be overwhelmed by people seeking medical treatment. Forty to fifty percent of the workforce would be affected, resulting in high levels of worker absenteeism, which in turn would affect essential services for communities, such as energy, food supplies, transportation and communications. “Considering the number of deaths in World War II, [avian flu] should be recognized as World War III—a war against a virus,” says Hiroyasu Sakakura, president of Klark Co. Ltd., Nagoya.

WHO and the governments of many countries, including Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, have announced guidelines for preventing and combating this new influenza, calling on companies, individuals and local governments to participate.

Industry response

High-performance fabrics have a role in blocking the avenues of infection. With new technology, several Japanese companies have successfully developed anti-virus, performance-added material for surgical masks, as well as for protective gloves and body suits. Surgical masks are effective in preventing infection via droplets. Unlike regular face masks and gauze masks, surgical masks have more than 95 percent bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE), measured by using Staphylococcus aureus of three micrometers. Since ninety percent of a flu virus is spread by droplets from the coughing, sneezing or the saliva of an infected person, this is significant information.

Another infection route is direct contact. A person with a virus-contaminated hand comes into contact with the eyes or mucous membranes of another person, or touches their own eyes or mouth, which is called direct infection. If an infected person touches telephones, computer keyboards, light switches or doorknobs, others who touch the same things can become infected, which is called indirect infection.

Aller Catcher mask. In October 2008, Daiwabo Co. Ltd., Osaka, introduced the Aller Catcher mask, a flat-pleated mask made of a nonwoven that has both anti-virus and allergen absorption and decomposition properties. Daiwabo and the Avian Influenza Research Center of Kyoto Sangyo University collaborated to develop the material. Rayon nonwoven fabric is cationized with a special treatment that can block harmful viral materials. According to Daiwabo, Aller Catcher anti-virus performance was tested with avian influenza virus and seasonal influenza virus and found to have a 99 percent BFE.

“A droplet is bigger than five micrometers, and the droplets can project as far as one to two meters from the infected person,” says Kenji Chimoto, Industrial Materials Research & Development Group of Daiwabo Progress. “Anyone wearing a mask that collects droplets five micrometers or larger can be considered safe.“

Daiwabo has been developing various high-performance textiles with anti-allergen and deodorizing properties in collaboration with Shinshu University. Because the material absorbs and decomposes pollen and house dust, it can also be used in underwear to prevent such skin conditions as atopic dermatitis and in masks to alleviate hay fever symptoms.

FLUTECT®. FLUTECT material was developed through the collaborative research of Shikibo Ltd., Osaka, and the National Institute of Animal Health. It has also been used in flat-pleated masks and shown to be effective against avian influenza. In experiments using influenza viruses H3N8 and H5N1, “when FLUTECT was sensitized to the viruses,” says Tsujimoto of Shikibo, “the virus infection value decreased below the measurable limit. This indicates its anti-viral effect, which is very rapid, and FLUTECT retains its anti-virus performance even after 50 washings.”

FLUTECT can also be applied to material post-processing—for example, poultry workers’ clothing, uniforms for the food industry, lab coats for research and medical institutions, and clothing for nursing care. FLUTECT’s surgical mask was introduced to the market in 2007 and has 99 percent BFE.

Shikibo has recently developed an N95 mask with FLUTECT. The N95 standard, certified by the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and used internationally, means that the product collects at least 95 percent of airborne particles (0.1–0.3 micrometers) and can be used by medical professionals.

Planning is critical

Winter 2008–2009 saw many Japanese wearing protective masks to prevent bird flu and seasonal influenza. Although public awareness of the potential pandemic is not yet widespread in Japan or the rest of Southeast and Central Asia, companies have created business continuity plans to adjust to limited employee attendance, and to continue operation in the event of a major outbreak. Many companies with offices in Southeast Asia insist on regular medical examinations of employees and their families, have stockpiled Tamiflu and masks for workers, and have put evacuation plans in place.

“Wearing and stockpiling the anti-virus mask is not the only [preventive] measure, but it is a must now. Supplying the anti-virus mask—and, if we go further, gloves, clothes and shelter—is one thing our industry can contribute to fight the pandemic,” says Sakakura.

The specialty fabric industry’s potential contributions can be vital in preventing a pandemic and protecting the global population from the threat of avian influenza and other contagious infections. The rapidly growing market for safety and protective products includes a wide variety of applications in institutional and personal health care.

Kikuko Tagawa is executive director of IFAI Japan.

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