Flu season means it is time to dust off your pandemic policy

The latest figure brings the total number of human deaths to fourteen in China’s unfolding bird flu epidemic. Infection cases that have been recorded appear to originate from Shanghai and show that this is a new strain, H7N9, which was not previously known to infect humans. With 63 reported cases of human infection and fourteen deaths, the mortality rate is high.

This latest outbreak of bird flu has had a very serious impact on China’s poultry sector, with losses of more than $1.6 billion reported already. Closer to home in South Africa, bird flu is crippling exports of Ostrich products. Reportedly, 50% of ostrich farmers have had to close their businesses resulted in significant job losses. Estimated losses for the sector, according to some, are running at R100 million per month.

Over the years, the flu virus has demonstrated its ability to mutate into more virulent strains which can spread quickly. Recently, various strains of bird flu, the SARS virus, swine flu and Hong Kong flu have spread rapidly around the world. While the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was the big killer—50 to 100 million people are thought to have died around the world—other pandemics have had severe impacts on productivity. The Center for Disease Control in the United States estimated that a “medium-level” avian flu pandemic could have an economic impact of up $166.5 billion, with seasonal flu responsible for some $10 billion in lost productivity and direct medical expenses—and these are 2006 estimates.

“The latest outbreak of bird flu in China and in South Africa should act as a timely reminder that we are now entering the flu and cold season,” says David Bollaert, a Senior BCM Advisor at ContinuitySA, Africa’s leading provider of business continuity solutions. “Whether it’s just a cold or the latest flu strain, these diseases can spread very quickly in a company and cause many hours of lost productivity as people spend time at home, visiting doctors or performing their duties at lower productivity level.”

Because a pandemic can affect a business’ ability to function, its business continuity plan should include a pandemic policy that lays out the processes for minimising risk. Among these processes are infection prevention and control measures aimed at halting or at least minimising the spread of infectious diseases.

“Companies need to guard against large numbers of employees becoming affected—that’s when the business’s capacity to operate becomes compromised,” says Mr Bollaert. “Before the flu season starts, I advise all companies to make sure their pandemic policy and response strategy is adequate, infection prevention measures are in place and that, most importantly, employees are informed and empowered.”

Prevention is always better than cure; this is a good time for the company to provide refresher information on how to improve health and basic hygiene. Eating healthier food, exercising and getting enough sleep will all help boost immune systems and lower infection rates—and getting a flu vaccination early is also to be recommended.

It is also worth reminding employees how effective basic hygiene can be in reducing cross-infection rates. Thorough, frequent hand-washing, covering one’s mouth when sneezing and wiping down surfaces in high-contact areas like hallways and washrooms with anti-bacterial cleaners can inhibit the spread of infections dramatically. Local research has shown that the use of antibacterial products alone can reduce the incidence of respiratory ailments by 85.8% in adults.

“Pandemics are a business issue: use your pandemic policy wisely to make sure your organisation stays safe and is able to continue delivering its critical services” concludes Mr Bollaert.

For more information on how ContinuitySA can assist you with your organisations business continuity plans please contact us.

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