Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Seasonal influenza risk in hospital healthcare workers is more strongly associated with household than occupational exposures: results from a prospective cohort study in Berlin, Germany, 2006/07

Chris J Williams12*, Brunhilde Schweiger1, Genia Diner3, Frank Gerlach1, Frank Haaman4, Gérard Krause1, Albert Nienhaus4 and Udo Buchholz1

Author Affiliations

1 Department for Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Robert Koch Institute, Berlin, Germany

2 European Programme for Intervention Epidemiology Training, ECDC, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Vivantes Healthcare, Berlin, Germany

4 Berufsgenossenschaft für Gesundheitsdienst und Wohlfahrtswesen, Hamburg, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Infectious Diseases 2010, 10:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-10-8

Published: 12 January 2010



Influenza immunisation for healthcare workers is encouraged to protect their often vulnerable patients but also due to a perceived higher risk for influenza. We aimed to compare the risk of influenza infection in healthcare workers in acute hospital care with that in non-healthcare workers over the same season.


We conducted a prospective, multicentre cohort study during the 2006/07 influenza season in Berlin, Germany. Recruited participants gave serum samples before and after the season, and completed questionnaires to determine their relevant exposures and possible confounding factors. The main outcome measure was serologically confirmed influenza infection (SCII), defined as a fourfold or greater rise in haemagglutination inhibition antibody titres to a circulating strain of influenza (with post-season titre at least 1:40).

Weekly mobile phone text messages were used to prompt participants to report respiratory illnesses during the influenza season. A logistic regression model was used to assess the influence of potential risk factors.


We recruited 250 hospital healthcare workers (mean age 35.7 years) and 486 non-healthcare workers (mean age 39.2 years) from administrative centres, blood donors and colleges.

Overall SCII attack rate was 10.6%. Being a healthcare worker was not a risk factor for SCII (relative risk 1.1, p = 0.70). The final multivariate model had three significant factors: living with children (odds ratio [OR] 3.7, p = 0.005), immunization (OR 0.50, p = 0.02), and - among persons living in households without children - ownership of a car (OR 3.0, p = 0.02). Living with three or more children (OR 13.8, p < 0.01) was a greater risk than living with one or two children (OR 5.3, p = 0.02). 30% of participants with SCII reported no respiratory illness. Healthcare workers were at slightly higher risk of reporting any respiratory infection than controls (adjusted OR 1.3, p = 0.04, n = 850).


Our results suggest that healthcare workers in hospitals do not have a higher risk of influenza than non-healthcare workers, although their risk of any respiratory infection is slightly raised. Household contacts seem to be more important than exposure to patients. Car ownership is a surprise finding which needs further exploration. Asymptomatic infections are common, accounting for around a third of serologically confirmed infections.