Ten years ago, Secretary Mike Leavitt of the Department of Health and Human Services said,
“Some will say that the discussions of the Avian Flu was an overreaction. Some may say, ‘Did we cry wolf?’ The reality is that if the H5N1 virus does not trigger pandemic flu, there will be another virus that will.”
Some ten years later, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to closely track cases of avian flu and on an almost daily basis report on the status of cases in different parts of the word. Currently, there are at least 16 known different avian flu types. The H5N1 strain is the one that causes the most concern, because it is the most virulent, the deadliest. Fortunately, humans do not become easily infected with the H5N1 virus strain. However, some highly pathogenic strains have caused severe respiratory diseases in humans. The H7N9 bird flu virus strain is also raising concern. Researchers from MIT reported that if either the H5N1 or H7H9 avian influenza strains mutated and acquired the ability to become easily human transmissible, there would be a serious risk of a pandemic flu. Influenza pandemics are rare but recurring events. They have typically occurred every 10-50 years throughout recorded history.
In the 20th century, there were three pandemics: 1918 (caused approximately 40 million deaths), 1957 (caused more than two million deaths) and 1968 (caused approximately one million deaths). The United States Government has issued a National Strategy that discusses the threat and potential impact of a pandemic influenza event and are encouraging businesses to put plans in place that describe how they will manage through a pandemic event.
It is important to note that here are distinct differences between pandemic planning and traditional business continuity planning. When developing business continuity plans, most managers typically consider the effect of various natural or man-made disasters that may differ in their severity. These disasters may or may not be predictable, but they are usually short in duration or limited in scope. In most cases, malicious activity, technical disruptions, and natural/man-made disasters typically will only affect a specific geographic area, facility, or system. Focusing on resiliency and recovery considerations can usually mitigate these threats.
But pandemic planning presents unique challenges to a business. Unlike natural disasters, technical disasters, malicious acts, or terrorist events, the impact of a pandemic is much more difficult to determine because of the anticipated difference in scale and duration. And a pandemic influenza is also unique in that, unlike many other catastrophic events, it will not directly affect physical infrastructure.
While a pandemic will not damage power lines, banks, or computer networks, it will ultimately threaten all critical infrastructures by its impact on an organization’s human resources causing the loss of essential personnel from the workplace for weeks or months. Businesses could experience a 25-35% loss of their work force. About a third of those losses will be from employees that are staying at home to care for their family; another third will be ill, and the final third will remain at home because of the fear of being exposed to the flu. The loss of essential personnel will also extend to your contractors, vendors, and suppliers (e.g., just-in-time logistics will be affected).
A pandemic should be considered a catastrophic versus a disruptive and manageable event. The magnitude and extent of the planning process must be expanded beyond what an organization typically incorporates in a resiliency process. And the response to a pandemic requires the scope of continuity activities to extend beyond immediate recovery (e.g., first 72 hours). Recovery, restoration, and resumption all need to be considered. Therefore, there is strong vested interest to learn what may happen and to prepare for it in advance. The best preparedness is to increase your readiness for a pandemic event by realistically thinking through potential scenarios and then to conduct exercises with the objectives of:
- Mitigating vulnerabilities to your business during a pandemic influenza outbreak;
- Identifying gaps or weaknesses in your pandemic influenza continuity plans, policies, & procedures;
- Encouraging your vendors, suppliers, and other stakeholders to jointly plan for, and test, their pandemic influenza plans; and,
- Fostering partnerships between the public and private sectors, and identify potential promising practices as well as issues or shortfalls in pandemic plans.