November 7, 2006
Although the potential avian flu pandemic no longer is receiving the vast media coverage it did months ago, it still is a high priority in worldwide health organizations and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This article offers an updated look at the threat and the latest information that can help you prepare your business for a possible pandemic.
A January 2006 article on thefabricator.com, Is your business prepared for a pandemic?, addressed a topic that then received much media attention—the possibility that the avian flu could reach pandemic proportions. In recent months the topic hasn't received quite as much media exposure, but worldwide attention continues to be focused on preparation for a potential pandemic.
In September 2006 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an 84-page document entitled Pandemic Influenza: Preparedness, Response, and Recoverythat states public health experts warn pandemic influenza poses a significant risk to the United States and the world—only its timing, severity, and exact strain remain uncertain. International, federal, state, local, and tribal government agencies are diligently planning for the public health response to this potential pandemic. The disease could be severe and could affect our critical infrastructure and our nation's economic and social security. It is important that you take action.
In the document's introductory letter, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote, "A severe pandemic influenza presents a tremendous challenge as it may affect the lives of millions of Americans, cause significant numbers of illnesses and fatalities, and substantially disrupt our economic and social stability. It is imperative for government officials and business leaders to work together now to develop effective pandemic-related business continuity plans and to implement successful preparedness and protective strategies."
Earlier this year many health organizations speculated about how and when the avian flu would make its way into the U.S. University of Georgia researchers have found that the common wood duck and laughing gull are very susceptible to highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses and have the potential to transmit them. "We chose birds that, because of their behavior or habitat utilization, are most likely to transmit the virus or bring the virus here to North America," said lead author and doctoral student Dr. Justin Brown.
Within the past two months, the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) reported finding a mild strain of HBN2 avian influenza—not the deadly H5N1 type—in green-winged teals in Illinois in September.
Initial tests on wild ducks in Ohio suggested a mild strain of avian flu. Thirty-five samples obtained from the ducks were screened at the Ohio Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. Two of the samples were sent to the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) for confirmation, and one tested positive for both the H5 and N1 components, which could mean the duck was infected with either one H5N1 strain or two separate avian flu viruses.
Oct. 20 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a detection of H5 and N1 avian influenza subtypes in a wild green-winged teal sample from Tuscola County, Mich., that was killed by hunters. Initial tests confirmed that this wild bird sample did not contain the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain that has spread through birds in Asia, Europe, and Africa. However, initial test results indicated the presence of low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) virus, which poses no threat to human health.
At the time this article was written, no human cases of avian flu have been reported in the U.S. The worldwide total reported by the World Health Organization is 256 confirmed human cases of avian influenza A(H5N1) with 151 deaths. These cases occurred in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.
However, health organizations still maintain that the continued spread of a highly pathogenic avian H5N1 virus across eastern Asia and other countries represents a significant threat to human health, which in turn could have serious consequences for business and the economy.
Because an avian flu pandemic is possible, businesses must continue to prepare. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn't taking the threat lightly. A statement on its Web siteabout pandemic planning addresses what a pandemic flu can mean to busness: "Each winter, the flu kills approximately 36,000 to 40,000 Americans, hospitalizes more than 200,000, and costs the U.S. economy over $10 billion in lost productivity and direct medical expenses. As staggering as these figures are, health experts are now warning about a far more lethal kind of flu—a pandemic flu that could kill over half a million people in the U.S., hospitalize 2 million more, and cost our economy an estimated $160 to $675 billion."
The article "Is your business prepared for a pandemic?" included a check listfor large businesses that identifies important specific activities to prepare for this and other emergencies.
Section 4 of the DHS document (see link in paragraph two) covers pandemic effects on business and discusses how companies can minimize the effects and ensure continuity.
CIDRAP has developed a 10-point Framework for Pandemic Influenza Business Contingency Planning. (You are required to register to receive the free information. Those who register will continue to receive updated information about pandemic planning.)
The pandemicflu.govWeb site includes a map that allows you to link to individual state pandemic planning information, state pandemic Web site information, and local state contacts.
Now is the time to plan—before the first human cases and human-to-human transmission of avian flu occur in the U.S. Having a well-conceived plan in place can help you avert this and other business-threatening disasters.