Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bird flu blitz

Bird flu blitz
Janelle Miles

July 10, 2006

AUSTRALIAN businesses are stockpiling anti-viral drugs and face masks as fears grow of an avian flu outbreak.

Public companies such as Telstra and Bluescope Steel have pandemic risk committees meeting regularly and the Commonwealth Bank has appointed a pandemic planning project manager.

Plans include expanded computer networks so staff can work from home.

So far, fatal cases of bird flu in Asia and Europe have been a result of humans catching the disease from sick birds.

But with the number of global deaths exceeding 100, experts fear it is likely the disease will pass from human to human, creating a pandemic.

This year, 55 people have died from the H5N1 strain. There were 41 deaths reported in 2005.

BHP Billiton, through its relationship with the medical support agency International SOS, has stockpiles of anti-viral drugs in regional offices considered at high risk.

The Bank of Queensland is about to implement basic hygiene education for staff, a measure immunologists believe is vital to reducing the spread of disease if a pandemic develops.

Some researchers fear the H5N1 virus could develop a seasonal pattern in line with flu seasons. In Australia, mid-June through to the end of August is the worst time for influenza, with up to six times the number of flu cases recorded than in other months of the year.

Director of the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Zsuzsanna Jakab told a recent European news conference that it was quite likely H5N1 cases in birds would reoccur in Europe, despite peaking for now.

"In birds, it has peaked for now but it is very likely it will come back," she said. "We have to get used to a seasonal pattern," Ms Jakab said.

In Queensland, small businesses, such as the Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island, are developing their own avian flu plans.

The resort, which employs 240 staff, has stockpiled 1000 masks and has evacuation plans in place if a pandemic strikes.

The Federal Government has advised businesses to plan for up to half their staff being absent whether through illness, or caring for sick family members or children if schools are closed.

Bank of Queensland group risk executive Bruce Auty said having measures in place to allow staff to work from home was critical to the preparations.

Despite the focus on the cost to business of absenteeism, experts say a pandemic may actually turn the gaze on to a new risk which they have dubbed "presenteeism".

Stoics who normally trudge into work while sick will be told firmly to stay at home to protect their well colleagues.

"At the moment now, one of the serious problems in preparing for a pandemic is that the population really has very low levels of hand washing and staying at home if you've got a flu-like illness with a fever," said immunologist Ron Penny, who diagnosed Australia's first case of AIDS in the 1980s.

"It's still accepted that they're allowed to come to work. There's no strong recommendation that people who have a seriously infectious disease should stay at home.

"I think we need to educate people."

Federal Government advisers warn that economically, Queensland would be the hardest hit of any Australian state, with even a "modest-level" pandemic forecast to wipe 7.1 per cent, or about $11 billion, off the Gross State Product (GSP) in the first year alone.

International health experts predict bird flu has a 10 per cent chance of turning into a pandemic this financial year.

Telstra's network services managing director Michael Lawrey said preparations for the likelihood of a pandemic were slightly higher in intensity than planning for other business risks such as fires, cyclones and floods.

Nevertheless, economists and business risk consultants say spending so far has been nowhere near the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly billions, Australian companies forked out to protect them from the Y2K millennium bug.

"People aren't spending that much money on a pandemic as they did with Y2K," said Deloitte business continuity management specialist, Kevin Nevrous.

"With Y2K you had a business risk ... and its impact could be immediate.

"With something like bird flu, I don't expect something like the whole country to be impacted on day one.

"We're not comparing apples with apples."

Sydney-based company Good Health Solutions, which advises business on how to maintain a healthy workplace, has estimated the cost of protecting a staff of 1000 against the possibility of a bird flu pandemic at about $92,000.

That includes consultancy fees, training programs for staff and 90 days' supply of anti-viral drugs for critical employees as well as other supplies to reduce infection risk like masks, disinfectant wipes, antimicrobial handwash, tissues and thermometers.

For businesses such as big retailers, whose staff have a high level of contact with the public, that figure could blow out to millions if they decided to stockpile enough face masks and other protective gear to protect staff for three months.

On the other hand, Mr Nevrous, who has consulted in risk management for many years, said he had discussed with some companies the possibility of turning a pandemic into a business opportunity, not just a threat.

For example, security companies may be in high demand if civil disobedience becomes an issue.

"If thousands of people are knocking on hospital doors trying to get in, hospitals are probably going to be short staffed, as will the emergency services," Mr Nevrous said.

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