The H5N1 avian flu virus has claimed 151 lives worldwide since 2003, and the threat of a pandemic emerging from the virus is still very real, according to the World Health Organization. So while mainstream media coverage has waned in recent months, businesses must prepare.
Kate McAuley, manager of travel analysis for consultancy Control Risks, says that Southeast Asia remains high on the list of likely places for the start of a global health risk from H5N1. (Indonesia's toll of 55 deaths is the world's highest as of Oct. 23.)
Dr. Joan Pfinsgraff, director of health intelligence for iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, says that a pandemic won't necessarily occur from this strain of bird flu, but since pandemics tend to occur every 30 years, scientists are on the lookout for genetic mutations and human characteristics of H5N1 that would allow human-to-human transmission. That signals a pandemic, according to WHO.
Advice for how organisations can plan:
Set up a monitoring system. Track events related to avian influenza, "and allow for 24/7 communication with all affected employees," travellers and local residents, says Pfinsgraff. This may allow organisations to communicate with affected areas and anticipate travel restrictions and quarantines in time to protect employees and assets.
Have both general and localised plans. Companies operating in high-risk areas will have little prep time once a pandemic begins. These organisations will "need to have a plan in place, tested and ready to go," says Pfinsgraff.
William Daly, senior VP and head of the New York Control Risks office, says that global companies should develop a broad corporate plan first, then design it for individual business units, depending on location. "The corporate pandemic plan, which should be based on [the company's] crisis management plan, will give them a structure to base localised plans on," he says. Local plans must mesh with actions by local governments, Daly adds.
Keep employees' functions in mind. Pandemic plans should be tailored to what workers do. Daly notes: "Employees in a law firm may be able to work remotely, but someone in a manufacturing plant is going to have to worry about keeping their supply chains moving."
Prepare for the unexpected. Daly says that simulation exercises help companies' crisis or pandemic management teams make sure everyone involved knows how to respond and understands the process. Organisations will be in a better position to maintain their operations if their plans remain broad and leave room for unexpected events, says Daly.
Be ready to serve. Private organisations that provide nonessential services and products should think about how they can help prevent economic loss during a pandemic, says Pfinsgraff. "Hotels may have an opportunity to become quarantine or treatment centres to accommodate overflow from local hospitals and clinics." This could save their business while simultaneously offering aid to a public organisation, she says.