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Flu season means it is time to dust off your pandemic policy

By David Bollaert, a Senior BCM Advisor at ContinuitySA.

The latest figure brings the total number of human deaths to 14 in China's unfolding bird flu epidemic. Infection cases that have been recorded appear to originate from Shanghai and show that this is a new strain, H7N9, which was not previously known to infect humans. With 63 reported cases of human infection and 14 deaths, the mortality rate is high.

This latest outbreak of bird flu has had a very serious impact on China's poultry sector, with losses of more than $1.6 billion reported already. Closer to home, in South Africa, bird flu is crippling exports of ostrich products. Reportedly, 50% of ostrich farmers have had to close their businesses, resulting in significant job losses. Estimated losses for the sector, according to some, are running at R100 million per month.

Over the years, the flu virus has demonstrated its ability to mutate into more virulent strains, which can spread quickly. Recently, various strains of bird flu, the SARS virus, swine flu and Hong Kong flu have spread rapidly around the world. While the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was the big killer - 50 million to 100 million people are thought to have died around the world - other pandemics have had severe impacts on productivity. The Center for Disease Control, in the United States, estimated that a "medium-level" avian flu pandemic could have an economic impact of up to $166.5 billion, with seasonal flu responsible for some $10 billion in lost productivity and direct medical expenses - and these are 2006 estimates, says David Bollaert, a Senior BCM Advisor at ContinuitySA, Africa's leading provider of business continuity solutions.

"The latest outbreak of bird flu in China and in South Africa should act as a timely reminder that we are now entering the flu and cold season," says Bollaert. "Whether it's just a cold or the latest flu strain, these diseases can spread very quickly in a company and cause many hours of lost productivity as people spend time at home, visiting doctors or performing their duties at lower productivity level."

Because a pandemic can affect a business' ability to function, its business continuity plan should include a pandemic policy that lays out the processes for minimising risk. Among these processes are infection prevention and control measures aimed at halting or at least minimising the spread of infectious diseases.

"Companies need to guard against large numbers of employees becoming affected - that's when the business' capacity to operate becomes compromised," says Bollaert. "Before the flu season starts, I advise all companies to make sure their pandemic policies and response strategies are adequate, infection prevention measures are in place, and, most importantly, employees are informed and empowered."

Prevention is always better than cure; this is a good time for the company to provide refresher information on how to improve health and basic hygiene. Eating healthier food, exercising and getting enough sleep will all help boost immune systems and lower infection rates - and getting a flu vaccination early is also to be recommended.

It is also worth reminding employees how effective basic hygiene can be in reducing cross-infection rates. Thorough, frequent hand-washing, covering one's mouth when sneezing, and wiping down surfaces in high-contact areas like hallways and washrooms with antibacterial cleaners can inhibit the spread of infections dramatically. Local research has shown that the use of antibacterial products alone can reduce the incidence of respiratory ailments by 85.8% in adults.

"Pandemics are a business issue: use your pandemic policy wisely to make sure your organisation stays safe and is able to continue delivering its critical services," concludes Bollaert.



ContinuitySA is Africa's leading provider of business continuity management and related services. The company boasts some of the continent's most highly skilled and qualified business continuity and disaster management experts who help companies, organisations and government departments of all sizes prepare for and deal with all eventualities. These include potential threats, events, incidences and unforeseen or sudden disruptions due to human error or natural events.

ContinuitySA also provides a variety of hosting solutions, ranging from co-located to fully managed virtualised environments, with their primary focus being to ensure its clients are able to address the resilience and recoverability of their IT services. These hosting services are complemented by managed backup and recovery services, virtual server replication and high availability solutions to satisfy any level of continuity requirement.

ContinuitySA operates the largest recovery facilities in southern Africa. It has a number of recovery centres in southern Africa with over 20 000 square metres of recovery facilities in Midrand, Gauteng. Smaller sites have been located in Cape Town, Gaborone, Botswana and Mozambique, and a joint venture has been established in Mauritius.

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