There is no certainty that a pandemic will occur, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly warned that the world should prepare itself for such an eventuality, and that it may only be a matter of time before the H5N1 strain currently in circulation acquires the ability to be transmitted from human-to-human.
Since December 2003, 93 of the 173 confirmed cases of people known to have been infected with the avian flu strain have died. The avian flu strain has been found in either wild birds or domestic poultry in at least 35 nations in Asia, Africa and Europe and has been responsible for human deaths in China, Vietnam, Iraq, Turkey, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
"An avian flu pandemic could be exponentially more challenging for businesses than SARS since it spreads through migratory bird populations and, in the worse-case scenario, could mutate into a strain that will allow for people to readily infect others," said Rosaline Chow Koo, head of Mercer's Health and Benefits business for Asia Pacific.
"Once this happens, employee absenteeism could be a major problem with people staying home either because they're sick, taking care of the sick or reluctant to leave their homes for fear of becoming ill. This will create significant disruptions to essential services, so proactive planning will be critical not only by governments but also by the business community to protect the health and well-being of employees," Koo said.
Business continuity planning for multinationals is complex, but a flu pandemic will be particularly challenging for companies with employees located throughout the Asia Pacific region because of the geographic fragmentation. The threat of a pandemic demands that companies develop and implement proactive crisis leadership strategies. Since a pandemic could incapacitate any member of the management team, there must be a plan to identify a group of managers who can back up one another and who will be available to exercise leadership in different locations and at different times during a pandemic, according to Koo.
Mercer's pandemic preparedness program addresses the key HR issues of crisis leadership, employee communications, workforce planning of critical business functions and the review of HR policies such as employee insurance coverage, travel restrictions and evacuations, sick leave, working remotely and preventive health measures.
Mercer's Web site, www.mercerhr.com/avianflu, serves as a planning tool and information resource for employers to protect their employee's health and to ensure ongoing operation of critical business functions.
In advising employers about preparedness for a potential pandemic, Mercer and its MMC affiliates, Marsh and Kroll, are able to offer their combined experience on business continuity planning forged through lessons learned from global crises over recent years.
"Our clients include the region's largest corporations and their CEOs are saying that the potential risk to employees and their businesses from human avian flu escalation in Asia is what's keeping them up at night, at the moment," says Ryad Dahbi, risk management leader in Asia for Marsh, the world's largest risk and insurance specialist.
Visitors to the Mercer avian flu Web site, are able to access the following planning tools:
- Download a Mercer white paper, "The Emerging Global Pandemic: Human Resource Implications."
- Conduct Mercer's online survey to determine your organization's level of preparedness Download regularly updated series on HR pandemic preparedness issues. The site currently contains papers on reviewing employee benefits and employee communications.
- Access up-to-date news reports on avian flu and its consequences for humans.
- Find useful information and links to other sites, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.