What SARS Taught Us

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) cost global businesses $60 billion. While the contagious cycle of the disease was short-lived, the lessons businesses learned from it will most certainly endure.

 With so much media attention on bird flu these days, corporations large and small are taking their educations from SARS and implementing plans to prevent the flu from striking their workers — and their bottom line.

 There has been much discussion in the medical world regarding Avian Influenza, also known as the bird flu. Primarily this flu is affecting poultry in eight Asian countries — Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Lao, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between late 2003 and early 2004, over 100 million birds were affected by the flu. During that time, there were reports of human cases, which included deaths. Then it appeared that the flu outbreak was under control.

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 This was not the case. By June 2004, more countries were affected, including new cases in North Korea and Malaysia. As of right now, it is thought that any human cases of the Avian flu are caused by contact with infected poultry — not from human- to-human contact. If the flu does start to cross the human-to- human barrier, we have very little immunity against this flu strain, and it will soon become a pandemic.

 Cases have now been noted in poultry in Britain, Russia, Italy, Croatia, Turkey, Romania, Canada, and the United States. Although outbreaks in humans have not yet been seen in most of these areas, no one is prepared to take the risk.

 The World Health Organization (WHO) is estimating that, if a bird flu pandemic strikes (and experts are predicting that it will), it could result in economic losses upwards of $800 billion.

 “The level of preparedness will also influence the economic and medical impact of the disease and the final death toll,” the WHO explains. “However, even in one of the more conservative scenarios, it has been calculated that the world will face up to several 100 million outpatient visits, more than 25 million hospital admissions and several million deaths globally, within a very short period.”

 Many nations are using the guidelines set forth by the WHO to put emergency plans in place to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic. European countries, in particular, seem to be well- informed and well-prepared. North America seems to be a little slower in springing into action, although President George Bush did recently ask for approximately $7.1 billion from congress to prepare for a pandemic, including $1.2 billion to stockpile vaccines.

 Multinational companies like Microsoft, Marriott International, 3M, and United Airlines aren’t taking any chances either — they’re putting their own contingency plans in place. Microsoft, for example, is currently putting in place a massive networking infrastructure to allow for up to 40,000 employees to telecommute so that business could carry on even in quarantined conditions. For current on-site employees, hand-sanitizer is a must-have.

 Flight attendants with United Airlines will be carrying bio-hazard bags, respiratory masks, and latex gloves on board for sick passengers, as well as to protect the airline staff.

 At 3M, employees who travel are being provided with masks, gloves, and Tamiflu, an antiviral drug.

 In other companies, we’re seeing vaccination clinics (although these vaccinations are not for the “bird flu” strain), hand- sanitizers, extra sick days granted to keep contagious employees out of the office, and some employees who travel to Asia frequently are being told to update their passports in case they need to depart quickly from a high-risk area.

 The objective of pandemic planning,” the WHO states, “is to enable countries to be better prepared to recognize and manage an influenza pandemic. Planning may help to reduce transmission of the pandemic virus, to decrease cases, hospitalizations and deaths, to maintain essential services and to reduce the economic and social impact of an influenza pandemic.”

 As governments and big businesses prepare for the bird flu, let’s hope that they learned enough from SARS to keep our economy floating in the face of a pandemic.