The bird flu virus outbreak at a turkey farm in Great Britain earlier this month has world health officials monitoring things closely and stepping up their prevention and preparation communications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services issued a Pandemic Severity Index (PDF). This Index offers a ranking of flu outbreaks on a severity scale of one to five, along with recommended responses. Employers should note their guide for
Business & Industry Planning (PDF). In addition, OSHA has just issued a Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic(PDF). Also, the Department of Labor has issued Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic, which classifies some jobs according to risk levels and offers suggestions for making a disaster plan. For another good resource, see Marsh's Avian Flu, Preparing for a Pandemic (PDF), a report released in 2006 which discusses the pandemic risk and offers businesses some lessons learned from the SARS outbreak, as well as addressing steps to ensure business continuity.
While many think that the talk of a pandemic is alarmist, history shows otherwise. Pandemics occur about 2 to 3 times each century, it is just a question of severity. With more than 50 million deaths worldwide, the 1918 Spanish influenza was the most severe pandemic in the last century. There were two lesser pandemics in 1957 and 1968. Currently, Avian Flu - also known as Bird Flu and H5N1 - is being carefully monitored by world health organizations. WHO's avian influenza website, which offers news and links to other resources, records 116 cases and 80 deaths in 2006, and 10 recorded cases and 8 deaths in 2007. So far, it is thought that most cases have resulted from human exposure to infected birds. Health officials monitor closely for signs of human-to-human transmission, because that would result in an marked acceleration of cases. In the 1918 outbreak, air travel was not as pervasive as it is today, a factor that would heighten the risk for rapid transmission across the globe.
Planning for bird flu may not be on the radar screen for many employers, yet we would make the case that planning for business continuity in the face of a disaster should be a part of every business plan. Hurricane Katrina, SARS and 9-11 - not to mention more run-of-the-mill events like hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires - all demonstrate the wisdom of advance planning for business continuity issues. Establishing a communication plan in advance, identifying and planning for work force issues that would need to be addressed, planning for maintenance of critical functions if operations had to be scaled back, and developing a crisis management team are sensible steps to take. With any luck, the bird flu threat will pass us by this year as it has in other years, but over the longer term, the pandemic odds are against us.