Pandemic Flu: The Time to Plan is Now
Avian flu is in the headlines almost daily now. And while no one knows for sure, many experts agree that with respect to pandemic Avian Flu; it’s not if, it’s when it will occur. If these experts are right, the threat of pandemic Avian Flu passes the test for probability and severity, and thus becomes something to be included in your emergency planning now.
Some argue this is just another Y2K fiasco where vast resources were expended for an event that never arrived. And like Y2K, we are again faced with trying to predict the future. The dilemma is that Mother Nature is in charge. Whether or not the current version of Avian Flu achieves its full, horrible potential by mutating into a virulent human illness is simply up to the random, unpredictable process of genetic change.
Who’s right? Only time will tell. The good news is that there is no penalty for planning, while the costs of failing to plan are manifold.
A “Pandemic” is an epidemic that transcends borders and impacts people across countries and continents. As of April 24th of this year, the Avian Influenza virus has spread to 50 countries across Africa, East Asia, the Pacific, South Asia, the Near East, Eurasia and Europe. It moves primarily via waterfowl along their seasonal migratory routes. While still predominantly a bird illness, Avian Flu has successfully jumped to humans on a number of occasions. This is the major concern among world health officials: should Avian Influenza evolve to achieve efficient human–to-human transmission, it will have the potential to march unabated across the globe wreaking havoc on populations that have no natural immunity to it. It could become a pandemic.
Is the threat real?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that three conditions must be met for a pandemic to start: 1) a new influenza virus subtype must emerge; 2) it must infect humans and cause serious illness; and 3) it must spread easily and sustainedly among humans. The H5N1 virus now moving across the globe meets the first two conditions: it is a new subtype that has infected humans over 200 times, killing more than half. It lacks only the final condition. But experts agree, the more the virus mixes among fowl and humans, the greater the probability it will adapt and achieve the third requirement; efficient human-to-human transmission.
A different type of challenge
Most of the disasters we plan for involve physical damage to our communities. Pandemic flu will be different: its impact will be on people’s lives. Estimates suggest that perhaps one third of our nation will become ill. But a larger percentage will be impacted and change their behaviors. We will “self distance” as we become fearful and wary of one-another. Schools may close; shopping malls, theaters and other locations where large groups assemble will become places to be avoided. Up to 40% of the workforce may remain home out of fear or to care for others. Past experience suggests the illness will move in waves across the county – remaining as long as six to eight weeks in a given community.
Personal planning comes first
Household Emergency Planning
Pandemic Flu Resources
Regardless of the threat, emergency planning begins at home. Studies show that people will not come to work unless they are confident of the welfare of their family and loved ones. Preparations for the home are simple and inexpensive. A comprehensive household emergency plan will address issues such as finding each other, emergency contacts, emergency supplies and taking care of pets.
Each business is unique, and each will be impacted in a different manner by pandemic flu. A good way to begin preparing is to review the publication Pandemic Planning Assumptions at www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/pandplan.html. Explore the impact of each planning assumption on your staff, your operation, your clients and your suppliers in turn. Next, complete the Business Pandemic Flu Planning Checklist distributed free by the CDC at www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/businesschecklist.html. Of course, a more in-depth assessment process can be had with the assistance of a professional emergency planner.
The time is now
If a human-to-human version of the Avian Influenza virus arrives on our shores, it is likely to move with surprising speed. Now is the time to be proactive in preparations for your family, your staff and your organization. Begin now to:
- Encourage household emergency planning
- Encourage employee flu vaccinations
- Update policies on absenteeism
- Where possible, consider work-from-home capabilities
- Plan for limitations on travel and assembly
- Plan for restrictions on shipments of supplies and raw materials
Even if pandemic flu never develops, quality emergency planning is a win-win: it is a clear demonstration of your regard for your staff, and it installs tangible measures that will serve to protect your business, regardless of the threat.
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Joe DeFors is a co-founder and principal officer of Comprehensive Emergency Management Associates, LLC (CEMA). CEMA is a full service mid-Michigan based emergency planning and consulting firm serving public, private and non-profit organizations.