By JARED SHELLY, senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance®
Bird flu is making a comeback -- in a big way. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in August that a mutant strain of the deadly virus is spreading into Asia and other areas.
The H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus had been largely off the radar screens of risk managers -- and the public in general -- since its presence fell from 63 nations in 2006 to just six in 2011, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. But bird migrations and trade have led to the disease spreading recently, and it's even moving into countries that were previously virus-free, according to the FAO report.
There have been 800 new cases recorded between 2010 and 2011, the report stated, but there only have been 565 cases found in humans since the disease first appeared years ago. That said, it's still deadly. A six-year-old girl died from the virus in Cambodia on August 14, the eighth such death in that country this year.
The U.N. also reported that the virus has recently landed in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia.
"Birds move around all the time," said Katherine L. Harmon, director of health intelligence at iJET, an Annapolis, Md.-based business-resiliency specialist. "With migratory flocks and farming practices, if people don't maintain a certain vigilance or surveillance, Avian influenza could be a bigger issue in the future."
The global recession and geopolitical turmoil in many countries also may be contributing to the reemergence of the disease, she said, as governments have slashed budgets and lost focus of the importance of keeping accurate tabs on outbreaks.
The good news is that the new strain is no more dangerous to humans than the previous one, said Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer at the FAO. It also behaves the same.
But risk managers at multinationals may be paying particular attention to China, which has found a variant strain -- one that "is able to bypass the defenses provided by existing vaccines" according to the FAO report.
Gary Lynch, global leader of the Risk Intelligence Strategies and Resiliency Solutions practice of New York-based Marsh Risk Consulting, said that 73 percent of companies doing business in China have a pandemic-preparedness plan in place, citing stats from a survey of 121 multinational companies that Marsh conducted on behalf of Shanghai Roche Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. in 2010. Many of those plans, however, are incomplete. Only 35 percent had actually stockpiled facemasks, bleach and sanitizer, while 68 percent said they didn't purchase any vaccines or antiviral medications.
Many experts agree that companies should plan for all types of pandemics. That way, it's easily adaptable when something new pops up, like H1N1 (swine flu) did in 2009.
Companies with employees in infected areas should also make sure people sick with bird flu will be covered under a company's health plan, iJET's Harmon said.
"It's something that may require intensive treatment. Someone can be in the [intensive-care unit] for repository therapy and support -- and that can get very expensive," she said.
Supply chains also could be interrupted during an outbreak, so Lynch recommends assessing how they'd be affected during an outbreak. While accidental death coverage could come into play, it's "almost impossible" to verify if someone contracted the disease while at work, or in some other way, he said.
But in light of the FAO report, is it time to start pulling people out of affected areas?
"Absolutely not," Harmon said. Instead, risk managers should urge employees in those areas to use common sense. Steer clear of outdoor markets. Don't handle infected birds and make sure to eat in reputable locations where food is properly cleaned and cooked.
"This is a virus that has infected relatively few people on the global scale of known viruses. Measles, for example, infects 450 people per day. When you think about it in statistical terms, [avian flu] isn't something that is near the same import to human health," Harmon said. "But it does have the potential for a global pandemic, that's why it's being watched so carefully."
Evacuations are also different these days, Marsh's Lynch said.
"In the past, the first reaction would be to try and get those folks out of affected areas, but some of the thinking has changed," said Lynch, noting that more and more companies send employees to a "cleansed environment" where they can continue working.
David Gluckman, senior vice president, property risk control executive, and business continuity practice leader at Willis North America in Morristown, N.J., suggests that businesses cross-train employees, so they have people in multiple locations that can step in and work for employees stricken with the bird flu.
"If the only employee who can perform a particular task or function goes down, then what's going to be the impact to everybody else in that organization?" Gluckman said. "Could I do the same work from my office here in New Jersey?"
September 2, 2011
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