Out-Law News | 18 Oct 2005 | 3:47 pm | 4 min. read
"Prepare your organisation to respond quickly and effectively," says the research firm. "Continually monitor relevant information sources and adjust your pandemic preparedness plans as circumstances change."
A bird flu outbreak could be more contagious and virulent than SARS – and Gartner is telling businesses to use experiences from SARS to plan for a potential epidemic while ensuring business continuity.
If a bird flu pandemic does occur – and Gartner warns that the likelihood is increasing – the spread may be rapid, leaving little or no time to prepare and affecting many industries, economies and regions worldwide, directly and indirectly.
On 13th December 2004, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts met in Geneva to discuss the potential threat posed by the predicted mutation of avian influenza into a highly contagious and virulent form that could quickly pass from person to person.
The WHO has warned that avian flu variant "influenza A (H5N1)" could combine with a flu strain that's already contagious in humans to cause a pandemic that might kill millions of people. H5N1 has been found in poultry in 11 Asian countries. Attempts to eradicate the disease haven't succeeded, even though 100 million birds have been destroyed.
To date, 44 human cases of H5N1 have been reported, all in Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the victims had direct contact with birds; 32 of the victims died.
If an avian flu pandemic breaks out, the WHO believes that the scale of infection might be considerably greater than it was with SARS, which infected 8,096 people and killed 774 in 2003.
The WHO says that "even in the best case scenarios of the next pandemic, two to seven million people would die and tens of millions would require medical attention." The WHO urges the development or updating of "influenza pandemic preparedness plans for responding to the widespread socioeconomic disruptions that would result from having large numbers of people unwell or dying."
Because avian flu is an emerging disease in humans, medical knowledge about it is changing rapidly. It is a potential threat that could be particularly harmful to humans. Medical researchers are constantly trying to develop new diagnostic tests and vaccines for avian flu.
Although experience with SARS offers a good starting point for contingency planning, historical experience suggests that an avian flu pandemic might pose even more challenging threats than SARS did, according to Gartner. Unprecedented international efforts halted the spread of SARS, but health experts say the avian flu could be harder to contain.
This is because people infected with it might be contagious for a period of time before showing any symptoms, which would make it harder to scan travellers for the disease. Also, it may have a short incubation period, which means there would be less time to track down and isolate people who may have been exposed to it.
Unfortunately, medical experts won't know for certain how avian flu spreads or might be contained until an outbreak appears in a large human population.
Include the possibility of an avian flu pandemic in your business continuity planning and crisis management preparations. Gartner points out that a pandemic wouldn't affect IT systems directly, but it would likely cause considerable economic disruption through its impact on the workforce and on business activity.
IT managers can plan for threats such as avian flu because many contingency strategies use IT to keep business running – even with travel restrictions, quarantines or problems with vendors or employees because of illness or fear. IT managers should ensure that their organisations plan for a possible outbreak whose course and consequences are unpredictable.
Use scenario planning to assess possible business impact and as the basis for developing appropriate contingency plans for different situations, says Gartner.
The 2003 SARS outbreak suggests that a pandemic may have the following effects:
Don't wait for an outbreak to review or establish contingency plans, urge the researchers. Many strategies take time to set up. Gartner recommends the following key activities: