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“The World Health Organisation is warning of a catastrophic bird flu pandemic, and Indonesia has admitted it already has an epidemic after a five-year-old girl died and nine more patients were quarantined. The Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday the consequences of a bird flu pandemic would be "enormous", as Australia agreed to a request from Indonesia's Health Ministry to fund the purchase of 10,000 doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu. In Japan, the Ministry for Agriculture said it was about halfway through the slaughter and incineration of 1.5 million chickens as it tries to contain the virus. Thirty-one poultry farms, all involved in egg production, remain under quarantine after testing positive during recent sweeps. The virus is estimated to have infected more than 10 million birds in Indonesia.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 9-22-05)
“Indonesia has been placed on an ‘extraordinary’ alert by an emergency cabinet meeting after the discovery of more suspected bird flu victims. Confusion surrounded the Government's measures to control the outbreak last night, with Jakarta's Governor and several cabinet ministers warning the alert would harm tourism…Authorities fear a pandemic of bird flu that could kill millions in Indonesia and in the region. The World Health Organisation official heading the battle against the potential Asian outbreak, Dr Hitoshi Oshitani, said the world could have just weeks to combat a pandemic before a catastrophic number of deaths.” (Tempo Interactive, 9-21-05)
Earlier this year, I participated in the development of a Bird Flu Crisis Response Plan for a global organization with significant interests, people and facilities in Southeast Asia.
On a regional conference call, organized to roll-out the plan for local implementation, there was push-back, particularly from Malaysia and Indonesia: “This is not a problem for us. Our newspapers are not telling us there is a danger here. There is no reason to do this plan. We are bird-flu free. This is a problem for Vietnam and Thailand, but not for us. You are making this into something more than it is not.”
Another individual, who had recently been charged with global crisis management responsibilities, responded weakly: “Well, perhaps we have the wrong information.”
Excuse me? “Perhaps we have the wrong information”?
I could not let such a misperception go unchecked. Two out of the three factors that go into the making of a pandemic were already in play. People’s lives and fortunes were at stake. The World Health Organization’s concern had been well-documented. The S.E. Asians had to get ready.
I spoke out, emphatically re-asserting the known science and the danger of pandemic, contradicting my co-worker and confronting the denial that the two crisis management team representatives from Malaysia and Indonesia were manifesting.
No, we did not have the “wrong information.”
Of course, in many corporate cultures, denial and self-interest are all-powerful.
In the ensuing months, the “Bird Flu Crisis Response Plan” was paid little more than lip-service by the global organization’s offices in the region, and I was admonished for my “arrogant and abrasive behavior” on the call.
Denial and self-interest had won out over science and security—once again. And although monster hurricanes fueled by global warming and health emergencies incubating in the world’s domestic animal and migratory bird populations pose great risks to your operations and the lives of your people, the greatest threat is posed by weak senior executives unwilling to expose themselves to professional risk for the sake of mitigating risks to people, operations and reputation.
At the time of my ill-fated conference call, the death count was at forty-six, and bird flu had spread through Asian poultry populations and been reported in nine Asian countries, including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam and North Korea. Today, the death count is at least sixty-five, and as I reported in GS(3) Briefing for 8-30-05, the scope of the problem has expanded ominously: “Borne on the wings of the world’s waterfowl, bird flu is on the move. Reports from Siberia, Kazakhstan, Tibet and Finland reveal that geographical area of impact has expanded dramatically in the past several weeks. More ominously, migratory patterns suggest that infected birds heading south from China’s Lake Qinghai will bring the virus to the wetlands of India, Bangladesh, and other birds heading from southwest from Siberia and Kazakhstan will bring it to the Black Sea and Europe's largest wetlands in Romania and Bulgaria, where they will co-mingle with waterfowl from Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.”
The economic costs could be staggering.
“The economic cost of September 11 was $70 billion. The tab for the New Orleans flooding could top $200 billion. An avian flu pandemic could cost trillions. We are quickly learning the costs of not managing the risks of disaster. Spending to prepare for worst-case scenarios may be far cheaper.” Business Week, 9-19-05)
“Investment banks are starting to issue warnings on the risks avian influenza poses to the economies and financial markets of East Asia...CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, the Asian investment banking arm of Credit Agricole of France, estimated in a report issued this week that the disease had already cost Asian countries $US8billion to $US12billion ($10.4billion to $15.6billion), mostly from the deaths or destruction of 140million chickens and other poultry. But the cost would be greater if the disease gained the ability to spread easily from person to person, a possibility not factored into stock and other asset prices…Citigroup has issued increasingly dire warnings, saying that avian flu could become much worse than SARS. Unlike SARS, influenza probably could not be stopped through quarantines or fever-recognition scanners at airports, because influenza victims become infectious up to a full day before they start exhibiting symptoms.” (Australian Finance Review, 4-7-05)
All organizations, particularly those with interests, people or facilities in South East Asia, should act on the following recommendations:
Monitor, on a daily basis, the spread of the virus regionally and globally via U.N. WHO, U.S. CDC and other authorities
Employ threat level designations, e.g., “Low,” “Medium” and “High” to signify status of countries where you have interests, people or facilities.Implement travel and office protocols for each threat level designation status
Push out awareness and education materials for your people living in and traveling to areas where bird flu has been detectedRevise your business continuity plans to factor in quarantines, etc. and mitigate the impact of such measures on your business operations
Be prepared to provide care for your people who fall ill, whether they are traveling or living in the regionNone of these recommendations should be news to those responsible for business continuity, crisis management, human resources and security in global organizations. And, indeed, those who already have plans developed should be well down the road to full implementation and have already undergone testing, and be actively engaged in training and raising awareness. Sadly, many organizations have not acted at all, and others have acted only minimally. Has your “Bird Flu Crisis Response Plan” already collected dust?
All your people traveling to or living in areas where bird flu has been reported should be provided, at a minimum, with prevention tips such as the following Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com)recommendations:
Avoid domesticated birds. If possible, avoid rural areas, small farms and especially any close contact with domesticated fowl.
Avoid open-air markets. These can be colorful or dreadful, depending on your tolerance level, but no matter how you see them, they're often breeding grounds for disease.
Wash your hands. One of the simplest ways to prevent infections of all kinds, hand washing is also one of the best. When you're traveling, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which don't require the use of water, are an excellent choice. They're actually more effective than hand washing in killing bacteria and viruses that cause disease. Commercially prepared hand sanitizers contain ingredients that help prevent skin dryness. In fact, use of these products can result in less skin dryness and irritation than hand washing. Not all hand sanitizers are created equal, however. Some "waterless" hand sanitizers don't contain alcohol. Use only the alcohol-based products.
Watch your kids. Keep a careful eye on young children, who are likely to put their hands in their mouths and who may not wash thoroughly.
Steer clear of raw eggs. Because eggshells are often contaminated with bird droppings, avoid mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, ice cream, and any other foods containing raw or undercooked eggs.
Ask about a flu shot. Before traveling, ask your doctor about a flu shot. It won't protect you from bird flu, but it may help reduce the risk of simultaneous infection with bird and human flu viruses.
No human cases of bird flu have been linked to eating poultry, although in at least one instance, the H5N1 virus was found in a package of frozen duck. Because heat destroys avian viruses, WHO officials don't consider cooked poultry a health threat. Even so, it's best to take precautions when handling and preparing poultry, which is often contaminated with salmonella or other harmful bacteria.
Wash well. Carefully wash cutting boards, utensils and all surfaces that have come into contact with raw poultry in hot, soapy water. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling poultry and dry them with a disposable towel.
Cook thoroughly. Cook chicken until the juices run clear and it reaches an internal temperature of 180 F.
Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs or any products containing them, including mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce and homemade ice cream.
And, BTW, don’t waste precious time quibbling over whether or not to call it “bird flu” or “Avian influenza” or “H5N1,” just act now. It may not be too late to make a difference for your organization’s operations and for the lives of your people. Act now. At the very least, you will learn invaluable lessons about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses in crisis, and more importantly, you will be in a better position for the next global health emergency (an inevitability), and along the way, you will have sent your people a powerful message that their well-being, as well as that of their loved ones, is of great importance to you.
Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and www.wordsofpower.net. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to www.wordsofpower.net.