What should HR be doing to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic? Dr Neil Nerwich, Group Medical Director – Assistance, EMEA and Americas, International SOS explains.
But the failure of an outbreak to materialise immediately should not prompt complacency. For the corporate multi-national, it is a major issue. This very much relates to the potential substantive impact of a pandemic on business continuity.
The threat is real. A pandemic will eventually happen; it is just a question of when.
The current avian flu is a virus that appears to have the potential to mutate into a subtype variant capable of causing a human influenza pandemic. By the term pandemic we mean a new subtype of the influenza virus to which people have little or no immunity, it is easily transmissible between humans, and is capable of causing substantial illness and death on an international basis.
When a droplet is borne it can be transferred both through direct and indirect transmission via surfaces contamination and therefore it is a highly contagious disease. It has a significant morbidity; although we do not know exactly what the mortality rate will be when the pandemic subtype of the virus emerges. We anticipate it could be as high as 30%.
We need to remember that we are not only talking about an impact confined to an isolated region of the world. Whilst the pandemic may originate in a specific region of the world, by the nature of a pandemic, influenza transmission combined with the extent of current international travel, the spread is likely to be reasonably rapid and global in nature.
Therefore, planning is the best approach for an organisation to mitigate risk, both with respect to the duty of care to staff and minimisation of the impact on business continuity.
Business and the HR community face a number of issues in relation to a pandemic, amongst them:
- Employee health and safety – determining the best way to reduce risk and protect health.
- Management of essential services and business continuity.
- Employee travel and HR policies.
- Communicating plans and processes.
- Implementing risk reduction strategies.
It will therefore be critical for corporations to proactively consider the best ways to mitigate risk and develop a contingency plan that will deal with these core issues. The basics of a phased pandemic plan include:
- Delaying or preventing infection in workers through risk reduction measures (eg; hygiene, screening, home working).
- Evacuation policy of non-business critical employees from developing countries.
- Decisions on the use of anti-virals
- Managing business with reduced staff levels and increased HR demands over an extended period.
- Synchronising the pandemic plan with the company’s existing business continuity plan.
In the midst of a pandemic when healthcare systems are overwhelmed, international transport is likely to be curtailed and public health regulations are likely to limit movement. For the expatriate, particularly in a developing country location with limited infrastructure, there can be major implications. Thorough preparedness planning can help to mitigate these potential risks.
Notwithstanding these risks, a recent survey by International SOS of over 200 Fortune 500 companies of corporate medical directors, HS&E managers, HR directors, and security/risk managers showed that while 91% of large corporations consider organisational preparedness for avian ‘flu (H5N1): “Important, very important or critical,” only 26% of firms have begun to implement pandemic preparedness plans and just one percent has completed a plan. A further 72% were investigating options.
The World Health Organisation has defined six phases in pandemic evolution, each progressive phase reflecting an increased risk of a pandemic. At present, we are categorised in phase three of this process, classified as being in the ‘pandemic alert’ period.
As the potential for a pandemic will follow these phases, a company’s contingency plan should be ‘triggered’ by ‘phase changes’. Critically, executives need to be vigilant for changes in the global situation, and have the ability to respond and communicate required actions across the organisation, to employees and management.
To be effective, corporations need to consider undertaking seven key steps:
1. Define your team and chain of command.
2. Build a body of knowledge to support the basic operational issues related to a pandemic and educate your team.
3. Define triggers for when to activate your internal processes, based on WHO pandemic phases.
4. Evaluate need for enhanced resources at high risk and significant business asset locations.
5. Train personnel – beginning at management and high risk locations.
6. Drill – set up pandemic scenarios to test processes, then re-evaluate systems.
7. Surveillance – ensure your team is able to gather and evaluate data, and disseminate a plan in a timely manner.
Given the huge and inevitable implications of such a pandemic, preparedness planning is a very sound and necessary strategy.