Preparing for an Avian Flu Pandemic
National and international health experts believe that the world is now closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time in the past four decades. Most experts worldwide believe that an avian flu pandemic will occur, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that it is “highly likely” that the triggering event for the pandemic will occur within the next two years. In view of these warnings, businesses should prepare now to minimize the impact of a possible pandemic on their business, employees, and customers.
Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is a contagious disease caused by viruses that normally affect only birds. One particular strain, known as H5N1, has caused severe illness in birds and poultry since its first outbreak in China in 1997 and can be transmitted to humans by direct contact with live birds or bird droppings. To date, 208 confirmed cases of human avian flu have been reported in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, with a mortality rate of 55%. Public health experts are concerned that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that is easily passed from person to person and cause a global flu pandemic. There would be no human immunity to the new virus, and no vaccine can be produced until the new virus emerges and is identified. As of now, it does not appear that the virus has become a pandemic strain. But if it does, it could cause a pandemic like the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which infected one-quarter of the global population and took the lives of more than 50 million people, or perhaps cause a less severe pandemic like those that occurred in 1957 and 1968.
The Impact of A Pandemic
If and when a pandemic flu virus emerges, its global spread is considered inevitable. Given the speed and volume of international air travel today, the WHO predicts that the virus could spread rapidly, possibly reaching all continents in less than three months. From past outbreaks, it is thought that the pandemic may occur in “waves,” each of which may last for six to eight weeks, and circle the globe for two to three years before dying out.
A severe flu pandemic could lead to high levels of illness, death, social disruption and economic loss. According to a draft of the U.S. government’s National Response Plan, recently made public, “While a pandemic will not damage power lines, banks or computer networks, it has the potential ultimately to threaten all critical infrastructure by its impact on an organization’s human resources by removing essential personnel from the workplace for weeks or months.” The report forecasts that as much as 40% of the national workforce could be off the job. The International Monetary Fund predicts economic disruption of supply chains from such high absenteeism and adds, “There may also be disruptions to transportation, trade, payment systems, and major utilities, exposing some financially vulnerable enterprises to the risk of bankruptcy. Moreover, demand could contract sharply, with consumer spending falling and investment being put on hold.”
How Businesses Should Plan
Federal and state agencies and various international organizations have been preparing for the pandemic for several years. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the federal agency assigned to spearhead the national response, recommends that private businesses “develop specific plans for the ways that you would protect your employees and maintain operations during a pandemic.” Like other business continuity or business disruption plans, preparing for an avian flu pandemic requires careful planning. Following are some of the steps that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends to help businesses prepare:
- Plan for the impact on your business. Identify a coordinator or team responsible for preparedness and response planning. Identify essential employees and critical inputs, such as suppliers and services, required to maintain operations during a pandemic. Plan for scenarios likely to change demand for your products and services during a pandemic. Determine the impact on business related travel. Find up to date, reliable pandemic information from public sources and make sustainable links. Establish an emergency communications plan.
- Plan for the impact on your employees and customers. Forecast and allow for employee absences due to factors such as fear of exposure, personal illness, caring for sick relatives, and school and public transportation closures. Implement guidelines to reduce the frequency of face-to-face contact (e.g., hand-shaking, shared workstations). Evaluate employee access to health care services during a pandemic. Identify key employees and customers with special needs.
- Establish written policies for dealing with a pandemic. Establish policies for employee compensation and sick leave absences unique to a pandemic. Establish policies for flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts). Establish policies for preventing the spread of flu at the worksite and restricting travel to affected areas.
- Educate your employees. Develop and distribute information about pandemic fundamentals and your preparedness and response plan. Anticipate employee fear and anxiety, and plan communications accordingly. Develop communication platforms (e.g., hotlines, dedicated websites) for communicating pandemic status actions to employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers.
- Coordinate with external organizations. Collaborate with insurers and health plans to share your pandemic plans and understand their capabilities and plans. Collaborate with federal, state, and local public health agencies to participate in their planning processes.
Education and outreach are critical to preparing for a pandemic. A copy of the CDC’s checklist may be found at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/index.htm.