How to prepare your business for a bird flu pandemic

Out-Law News | 18 Oct 2005 | 3:47 pm | 4 min. read

Businesses should factor the possibility of an avian influenza, or bird flu, pandemic into their continuity planning and crisis management preparations, according Gartner. Its experts recommend that IT managers develop contingency plans now.

Advert: Phishing conference, London, 27th October 2005"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.

The WHO and the flu

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.

How organisations should prepare for bird flu

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:

  • International travel: Depending on the severity of the outbreak, quarantines may result in travel bans or travel delays. Health checks for travellers would likely be commonplace. Many trips could be cancelled.
  • Local travel: In cities or countries where an outbreak occurs, travel may be severely restricted or even impossible for periods of time.
  • School closures: Schools in affected cities would likely close, forcing many parents to stay home and care for their families.
  • Health systems: Medical facilities could be overwhelmed, depending on the size and virulence of the outbreak – particularly in less-developed nations with already-strained healthcare resources. As with SARS, containment methods would likely be low-tech, relying on awareness campaigns, surgical masks and isolation.
  • Economic impact: Experience with SARS demonstrated that industry sectors such as travel and hospitality would be rapidly affected, with flow-on effects occurring in other parts of the economy. Some sectors, however, would benefit, such as technology companies that provide solutions for remote workplaces – but this would be small compared with normal business operations. The effect on individual communities could be prolonged if outbreaks recur, as has happened during previous flu pandemics.
  • Supply chains would likely be affected because of inspections and logistics disruptions, especially where countries with high infection rates are involved. Also, certain animal products or other products might be banned.
  • Personnel: Widespread illness could result in staff shortages for providing essential community services – particularly in medical staffs.
  • Overall business slowdown: With travel limited and spending reduced in many areas, sales and marketing campaigns would be affected. Deals and transactions – domestic and offshore – could be delayed.
  • Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD): Even if only a few people are infected, the threat of disease could greatly affect the behaviour and normal business activities of others. Discussion and speculation about the situation would further reduce workforce productivity.

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:

  • Make your workforce aware of the avian flu threat and the steps you're taking to prepare for it.
  • Assess your business continuity preparedness for this type of workforce outage scenario and try to improve it (if necessary).
  • Assign someone in your business to track biological threats such as the avian flu. He or she should regularly review business continuity plans and update them in response to new information.
  • Establish or expand policies and tools that enable employees to work from home with broadband access, appropriate security and network access to applications.
  • Expand online transaction and self-service options for customers and partners.
  • Work with customers and partners to minimise any disruption by developing coordinated crisis response capabilities.