Bird Flu Pandemic: Have a Plan?

August 11, 2010

Sorry to ruin your day, but in addition to all the usual trivia you have to deal with on the job, there's this little matter of a possible bird flu pandemic to worry about. Does your firm have a “business continuation plan” in the works to deal with such a calamity?

As of July 26, the World Health Organization reported 232 human cases of avian influenza from the A/H5N1 virus, with 134 deaths, mostly in Asia. One probable case of human-to-human transmission—the real threat—occurred in Thailand in 2004; last June, eight people in one family were similarly infected. Tamiflu and Relenza may improve prospects of survival, says the WHO, but it will take 10 years to make enough of the drugs to cover even 20% of the world population. There is no vaccine. The WHO's conclusion: “The probability that a pandemic will occur has increased.”

For some perspective, the Spanish flu of 1918-19 resulted in 675,000 deaths in the U.S., 20-40 million deaths worldwide. The disruption to the world economy was enormous.

Here, then, are some practical steps AEC firms can take to prepare:

1. Get serious about workplace hygiene. Encourage everyone in the office to cover coughs and sneezes and to wash their hands frequently—with soap. Disinfect worktops, door handles, telephones, toilets, and keyboards frequently. Don't share phones or computers. Bag and bin dirty tissues and dispose of them regularly. Encourage employees to do the same at home.

2. Develop a business continuity plan. This starts with simple things, like whether to shake clients' hands or whether to turn off the air conditioning. What about closing the communal dining area in your office, or restricting its use? Can you limit (or eliminate completely) face-to-face meetings? What will your travel policy be? Should you take on work in affected countries?

What do you need to do to enable more employees to work from home? How will you keep key functions, such as your IT systems, up and running? What about backup power in case your utility supplier goes down? How will you coordinate policies and actions at your work sites and offices?

3. Talk to your clients and suppliers—and your lawyer. What expectations do your clients have as to your firm's ability to perform work in such a crisis? How will you get materials and services from your suppliers? Do your clients and suppliers have business continuation plans? What does your lawyer say about your legal and contractual obligations in the event of a pandemic?

In sum, don't ignore the bird flu threat. The A/H5N1 virus wants to survive as much as you and I do, and it will seek every way possible to propagate. Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

For more on H5N1, go to: (CDC) and (WHO).


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