The Federal Government Isn’t Ready for Avian Flu. Are you?

The federal government isn’t prepared for avian flu. Are you?

As if hurricanes and terrorism concerns weren’t enough, corporate and government business continuity plans should account for a possible pandemic, says Martin Meltzer, senior health economist for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s about starting the planning program,” Meltzer says. “It’s crucial that business leaders, government officials and healthcare professionals begin discussing and actively implementing a plan to deal with this if it were to reach a pandemic.”

In the U.S., the CDC estimates that a “medium-level” pandemic would result in 89,000 to 207,000 deaths in the first six months and between 314,000 and 734,000 hospitalizations. Another 18 million to 42 million outpatient visits to hospitals would likely ensue.

The U.S. economic impact: between $71.3 billion and $116.5 billion.

On Nov. 1, President Bush said he would ask Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for an outbreak. But Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt admitted in early October that the federal government is only in the earliest stages of contingency planning and “not as prepared as we need to be” for an emergency that, unlike a hurricane or terrorist attack, would stretch far beyond any one city, state or region.

Corporations are also behind, say analysts and executives. Business continuity leaders at large companies need to develop contingency plans to communicate with employees and health-care authorities and maintain day-to-day business operations amid the travel restrictions and quarantines that would go with an outbreak. “Business continuity and information-technology leaders are ideally placed to plan for avian flu’s threats,” wrote Gartner analyst Steve Bittenger in an Oct. 24 research report.

Among the items you should adopt:

Work remotely.In a flu pandemic, the fewer people who are physically together, the better. Create a virtual private network or add new employees to it.

Demand a plan.Once public health officials have established a plan, communicate it throughout your company.

Automate.Online transaction functionality for customers and vendors keeps people isolated.

Assess demand for raw materials and supplies in advance. If a supplier is hobbled and transportation networks are down, just-in-time inventory arrangements will falter.

While health officials point out that the virus, which currently transfers from birds to humans, has not yet reached pandemic proportions, they are taking the threat seriously, advising hospitals, schools and large companies to begin preparing emergency plans.

The World Health Organization as of Oct. 24 reported 121 confirmed cases and 62 deaths. Avian flu has also turned up in birds in Britain, Russia and Croatia, according to the governments there.

According to a May 26 Government Accountability Office report, a Health and Human Services plan for lining up a sufficient vaccine supply, sharing information among world, state and local governments as well as the private sector, and lining up enough hospital workers isn’t fully formed.

Currently, information such as the quantity of anti-viral drugs, numbers of people and animals infected, and historical flu-related data is shared among more than 3,000 local health departments, 59 state health departments and more than 180,000 public and private laboratories.

Information sharing takes place through a mix of telephone calls, voluntary reports, and information systems such as the National Retail Data Monitor, which collects sales data electronically from venues such as pharmacies and retail stores, and the Epidemic Information Exchange, an online system used to share disease outbreak information with state officials.

Meltzer and the CDC have also developed two software applications, Flu Aid 2.0 and FluSurge, to help state and local public health officials plan, prepare and practice for a pandemic. Flu Aid 2.0 gives users a range of estimates based on historical data collected from the last three pandemic flu cycles in terms of deaths, hospitalizations and outpatient visits.

FluSurge is an Excel-based application that uses population density and anticipated infection rates to project demand for hospital beds, as well as the number of persons who require intensive care and a ventilator during their hospitalization.

“This gives hospitals and health organizations an idea of what to expect and how to respond,” Meltzer says. For the private sector, the ominous forecasts of lives and dollars lost has forced executives to re-evaluate their business continuity and disaster recovery plans, but they are waiting for the federal government to take the lead.

Next page: Firm Plans, or Just Ideas?