Avian Flu Pandemic: Companies Should Prepare Now, Experts Warn

Feb. 13, 2006
Businesses and communities must prepare to be "self-contained" in the event of a flu pandemic, as the nation's health care system likely would be overwhelmed and regional cooperation could be crippled, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In this planning scenario, we are operating under the assumption that local planning has to be where the action is at," CDC Director Julie Gerberding, M.D., told attendees of ORC Worldwide's quarterly meeting in Washington.

Gerberding pointed to estimates that a flu pandemic could infect one in three people, killing 2 million Americans and placing three-quarters of a million people in intensive care units with ventilators far beyond the nation's current health care capacity. In the event of a flu pandemic, CDC believes businesses would play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety as well as in limiting the negative impact to the economy and society.

"We have to gear up and do what is necessary to prepare, and local planning including the role businesses play is critical to these efforts," she said.

To help employers prepare for a possible flu pandemic, CDC has developed a checklist that includes actions they can take to plan for the impact of a flu pandemic on their businesses and on their employees and customers.

Among those actions, the checklist advises employers to:

  • Identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and response planning.
  • Identify essential employees and other critical inputs (for example, raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products and logistics) required to maintain business operations by location and function during a pandemic.
  • Find up-to-date, reliable pandemic information from community public health, emergency management and other sources and make sustainable links.
  • Establish an emergency communications plan and revise it periodically.
  • Forecast and allow for employee absences during a pandemic due to factors such as personal illness, family member illness, community containment measures and quarantines, school and/or business closures and public transportation shutdowns.
  • Implement guidelines to modify the frequency and type of face-to-face contact (for example, handshaking, seating in meetings, shared workstations) among employees and between employees and customers (refer to CDC recommendations).
  • Encourage and track annual influenza vaccination for employees.

Gerberding also invited business leaders to participate in CDC's global health protection network in order to have quick access to critical health information.

"A large number of corporate entities are now linked to us electronically," she said. "I'd like to hear from any of you who would like to be included in our list of real-time information dissemination."

More information is available at a CDC Web site dedicated to the subject: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian.

Flu Pandemic Certain to Occur

Gerberding's comments were echoed by Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., associate director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense.

Osterholm warned company health professionals that the time to prepare is now, because a flu pandemic is certain to occur.

"It's not a question of 'if,' but of 'when,'" Osterholm asserted. "Pandemics are like earthquakes, hurricanes and Tsunamis they occur."

Osterholm outlined the following scenario in the event of a global flu pandemic:

  • The U.S. health care system would be overwhelmed almost immediately;
  • Government services such as garbage collection, police protection and even some local water supplies, likely would be disrupted.
  • The global economy would grind to a standstill as many employees would not show up for work, borders would close and the transportation system would shut down.

While the dangers of an imminent avian flu pandemic are real, he cautioned it is impossible to foresee whether the strain currently circling the globe will mutate into a source of infection for humans. He also estimated that 95 to 98 percent of the world's population likely would survive such a pandemic.

Just-in-Time Delivery Makes Businesses Vulnerable

Businesses are especially vulnerable to the effects of a possible flu pandemic, Osterholm noted, now that the just-in-time global delivery system has become a fixture of the world economy. Because many companies have reduced expenses by relying on the immediate delivery of raw materials often from far-away places the economic consequences of a pandemic are likely to be immediate, profound and universal.

As a result, Osterholm advised employers to address business continuity plans and logistics as they prepare for a possible flu pandemic.

"Providing your employees and their families with comprehensive, current and authoritative communication" is another critical role companies can play to help minimize the disruption of a flu pandemic, Osterholm said.

Osterholm, who also is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, advised those interested in additional information to consult his organization's Web site at http://www.cidrap.umn.edu.

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