MARCH 14, 2006 | A global flu pandemic is an ever-present threat, says a doctor with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s a good idea for businesses to start planning now for its impact.
In one week’s time, a flu outbreak could overwhelm hospitals, close schools, paralyze businesses and cripple the economy to the tune of billions of dollars, said William Kassler, M.D., senior adviser in the
“The only thing harder than planning for an emergency is explaining why you didn’t,” Kassler told a crowd of business people and health professionals at the
Kassler’s presentation, “Pandemic Influenza: How Sick Might Business Be?,” was hosted in the Fred W. Smith Auditorium of the Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute at UAMS as part of the
“The flu pandemic is kind of like an earthquake,” Kassler said. “We know it will happen, we just don’t know when or where.”
Issues businesses should begin thinking about include dealing with high employee absenteeism, potential supply chain interruptions for products or services and travel limitations. Items like sick leave policies might need to be addressed, he said, since concern over lost wages might make sick employees come on to work when they shouldn’t.
Kassler urged the audience to stay informed on the topic and keep a checklist plan in the event of an outbreak.
A Web site, www.pandemicflu.gov, has been established to provide information on the potential for a flu pandemic and preparation tips.
“It’s not about the government coming to the rescue, but about everybody understanding their diverse roles and thinking about what we can do to be prepared,” Kassler said.
A pandemic will emerge with little or no warning and may not even be related to the avian flu strain that most now have their eye on, he said.
A flu pandemic will be much different from the seasonal flu seen annually. It will spread quickly and be especially potent, causing widespread deaths and serious illness.
The 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus in
A flu pandemic, Kassler said, would likely last 12 to 18 months.
CDC experts believe the next flu pandemic could dwarf the previous outbreaks. A 1918 pandemic killed more than 500,000 people in the
The avian, or bird, flu strain known as H5N1, is of particular concern as a possible catalyst for a pandemic. It has infected birds, poultry and some mammals across Asia and
Since 2003, more than 100 human H5N1 cases have been diagnosed in
Currently, close contact with infected poultry has been the primary source for human infection. Though rare, there have been isolated reports of human-to-human transmission of the virus – which is what the CDC is watching for as a sign of a pandemic.
“Of particular concern is that this virus is changing, becoming more infectious and spreading to more species,” Kassler said.
The likely source of an H5N1 outbreak in the
“The good thing is that so far there has been no sustained and rapid person-to-person transmission of the virus,” he said. “But we can’t ignore the threat.”
Current flu vaccines are for seasonal flu and would not be effective against the H5N1 virus. Researchers are working quickly to develop new vaccines, and there have been some positive results, Kassler said.
He recommended good hygiene techniques – including regular hand washing and practicing “social distancing.” These includes coughing or sneezing into the elbow instead of the hands, since many people might then shake hands or touch someone or something else, which could spread a virus.
Public health agents continue to stay alert for signs of an outbreak, Kassler said. “But we can’t wait for the first signs of an outbreak.”
Links on This Page
CDC pandemic Web site: www.pandemicflu.gov