Avian Flu Pandemic is Likely Much Ado about Something

By | October 10, 2006

“Pandemics happen. What we don’t know is when it’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be,” according to Rick Casse, former director of business continuity planning for Gap Inc. Speaking to the Golden Gate Chapter of the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. (RIMS), Casse said that’s the reason businesses should prepare for a possible avian flu pandemic.

According to Casse, the influenza strain H5N1 that currently is a bird flu, has the potential to mutate into a human virus. Previously, he said the virus wasn’t very widespread. However, starting last year, the virus has been spreading rapidly throughout the wild and domestic bird populations, and now is in 10 countries — countries in which Gap does business in. Further emphasizing the concern, the virus is spreading from birds to mammals, which indicates it is evolving, Casse said. “It’s those potential mutations to the virus that make it more easily transmitted among people and create some of the risk of a pandemic,” he said.

Comparing the avian flu to a previous influenza pandemic that occurred in 1918, Casse said if 1918 occurred today, nearly 10 million people will be looking for hospitalization, based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Spanish Flu of 1918 traveled across the country in less than four weeks at a time when air travel did not exist, he said. With today’s technology, “There’s a prediction that if [an avian flu pandemic] lands in San Francisco on Monday, it will be in New York by Friday,” he said. “There is not going to be much warning. It will be worldwide.”

Casse said how many people a potential avian flu pandemic will affect and how fast it travels around the world will be determined largely by the public health response after the initial outbreak. “Respiratory etiquette is key,” he said. He recommended people wash their hands, wear surgical masks once an outbreak occurs, and use Lysol.

And in the meantime, Casse recommended businesses create a preparedness plan that takes into account work stoppages for long periods of time and high employee absences.

Scientists predict it will take six to 12 months for a vaccine to be developed once an outbreak occurs, he said. And even then, the first vaccine supplies will be rationed, so companies cannot rely on having those for their employees.

Consequently, Casse said businesses should consider technology solutions such as video conferencing, staggering work shifts and even separating employees’ workstations more than three feet apart to prevent transmission of the disease and manage operations should a pandemic occur.

Is the avian flu much ado about nothing? Casse asked his audience of mostly risk managers. After his presentation, he said he hoped he had convinced businesses that a potential avian flu pandemic is “much ado about something.”

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