Bird Flu and Pets: Cat Carrier
Four European countries today imposed restrictions on the movements of cats after a dead cat in Germany was discovered to have been infected with bird flu.
The dead animal was found yesterday on the Baltic island of Ruegen, where more than 100 wild birds have died of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus. Experts say that the cat probably fell ill after eating an infected bird.
As experts in many European countries took to the airwaves to offer advice to animal owners, alarmed that they might catch the human form of the virus from their pets, the German Government announced that all cats must be kept indoors in bird flu-affected zones. In addition, dogs must be kept on leashes, and all animals watched for signs of strange behaviour.
If you think for a moment that human behavior won't get strange if the avian flu virus mutates to a human-to-human transmissible strain and spreads to North America, you only have to observe the panic among pet lovers in Europe. As much as we love our pets, things could get really crazy in the workplace.
"Businesses need to plan on having 40 percent of workers out" warns the headlines of American news media. No one can say if the virus will evolve into a form that passes easily among humans, but WHO and other experts say a pandemic of some disease is inevitable and that planning now will not be wasted.
“We have seen, in the past several weeks, a remarkable acceleration of the pandemic in birds,” Dr. Rajiv Venkayya, special assistant for biodefense to President Bush, told the conference.
“It’s something short of inevitable that we will see a case of H5N1 here in the U.S.”
“At the peak of the pandemic each company must be prepared to sustain absenteeism of up to 40 percent,” Venkayya told the conference, sponsored by the Trust for Americas Health and Fleishman-Hillard public relations.
Some businesses will be able to get by with letting employees work from home. “We need to understand the role of telework,” he said. But others will have to be encouraged to stay home.
“We need to change our approach to absenteeism,” Venkayya said.
This may be tough, others told the conference. “Half of America’s workers have no sick leave,” said Jeffrey Levi of the Trust for America’s Health.
“We are going to ask people to stay home.” But if workers face losing pay if they do not show up, they will come out while sick and will spread influenza, Levi said.
“The approach of most organizations is you go to work whether you have a cold, whether you are half dead,” said Dr. Myles Druckman of International SOS, an international medical assistance firm.
“They are going to have to change their whole corporate culture.”
Companies should make permanent infection-control measures that can reduce absences from illness in any year, not just a pandemic, Venkayya said.
Pandemic Plan points us to this month's issue of Inside Counsel magazine which quotes Laura Franzke, business development director of Logistics Health Inc., a Wisconsin company that provides governments and businesses with medical readiness services, who expresses concern about corporate America’s laissez faire attitude toward the avian flu. Franzke outlines a Canadian case study in preparedness at the corporate level.
The Alcan Way
The risk to employees and a company’s operations, however, is far too great to ignore. “If the pandemic occurs, you need a plan on the shelf that addresses how to handle it at both the employee and customer level,” Fanzke says. “Some companies—mainly in Europe—have already stockpiled basic supplies, such as respirators, gloves and face masks. We should be doing it too.”
Fortunately, such plans aren’t hard to put in place, and a company can implement them within a matter of months. For instance Alcan Inc.—a $20 billion Canadian aluminum manufacturer with approximately 70,000 employees in 55 countries around the globe—developed and implemented a detailed, global response program in just two months. The company began the process in September 2005 when it convened a committee comprising corporate security, environmental health and safety, and communications representatives from Europe and Canada. In November the committee introduced a companywide program that covers everything from stockpiling medical supplies and quarantine procedures, to telecommuting and foreign travel policies.
The company’s travel policy includes daily avian flu status reports that inform employees of the current situation by country and, if necessary, tells them what areas to avoid. At the plant level, the company has developed flu-screening processes including procedures to backtrack and identify anyone who came in contact with an infected individual.
Should the virus begin to spread, the company will implement the plan in stages according to four color-coded alert levels: green (non-contagious); yellow (spreading remotely in other countries); orange (spreading locally); and red (infecting employees). Each stage triggers specific instructions for employees.
“Right now we’re at the green level, so we wanted to provide basic medical advice to employees without scaring anyone,” explains Manoel Arruda, Alcan’s EHS director. If conditions reach the red level at any facility, the company will shut down and send employees home.
“At some locations, shutting down will only take a few minutes,” says Mivil Deschenes, Alcan’s chief security officer. “But with an aluminum smelter, it could take four days to ramp down to a complete stop. We’ve conducted drills with crisis management teams from all five business units.”
What's your company's plan?