March 1, 2006--While cases of bird flu continue to surface across the globe, spawning fears of a worldwide outbreak, few U.S. businesses are taking any preventative action, a new survey shows.

Although most companies are taking the threat seriously, they have yet to prepare contingency plans to deal with a global flu pandemic, according to a straw poll by the University of Minnesota.

Of some 300 business leaders attending a national summit on business planning for pandemic influenza in Minneapolis last week, just 18% said they currently have a business continuity plan in place. Still, well over half were certain a flu pandemic was coming within the next few years, with about 85% saying it would "definitely" disrupt their businesses.

A similar conference was held this week in Washington.

Those polled at the two-day Minnesota summit came from a cross-section of industries -- including health care, retail, wholesale trade, manufacturing, professional services, finance, and insurance, organizers said.

Speaking at the opening session, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said the lessons of Hurricane Katrina were that the "unthinkable happens, and we need to be thinking about the unthinkable."

Since 2003, more than 80 people have died from the H5N1 bird flu virus, with nearly every human case limited to those in direct contact with infected birds, according to the World Health Organization. The virus, which has so far taken its greatest toll on poultry stocks in Southeast Asia, recently spread to Europe.

World health experts fear H5N1 will eventually mutate into human-to-human transmission and wreak havoc on a scale similar to the devastating 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which also jumped from birds to humans and killed as many as 50 million people.

On Tuesday, a dead cat in Germany was found infected with the virus, along with some 400 turkeys on a farm in France -- prompting the U.S. to ban poultry and live bird shipments from the region.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that even a medium-level pandemic in the U.S. today could cause up to 200,000 deaths, 734,000 hospitalizations, 42 million outpatient visits, and 47 million sick people -- the economic toll ranging from $71.3 billion to $166.5 billion.

After 44 people died from SARS in Toronto in 2003, the World Health Organization posted a global travel advisory that virtually shut down the city's travel and tourism industry overnight and cost millions to the local economy, city officials said.

"All of us depend on imported products, and all of that depends on the free movement of people and goods across national borders," Sherry Cooper, an economic strategist with BMO Financial Group, told attendees at the Minneapolis planning summit. She estimates that a pandemic would knock six percentage points off global economic growth over a three-month period as a result of the "blurring" of national boundaries through multinational corporations, global travel, and international supply chains.

Tourism, transportation, the hospitality industry, life and health insurers, and the entertainment industry would be the first and hardest hit, Cooper said.

Along with a prolonged slump, Copper said, business owners in every sector could expect absenteeism rates to jump by 30% -- on top of disruptions to waste management, water, and electricity services, and shortages of fuel, medicine, and other supplies.

According to the CDC, small businesses play an important role in limiting the social and economic impact of a pandemic. Among other planning strategies, it urges business owners and managers to:

  • Identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team.
  • Identify essential employees and other critical inputs (raw materials, suppliers, and services) needed to maintain business operations.
  • Train and prepare an ancillary workforce.
  • Establish an emergency communications plan.
  • Forecast and allow for employee absences.
  • Establish policies for flexible worksites, such as telecommuting.
  • Plan to restrict travel to infected areas.
  • Identify community sources for timely and accurate pandemic information.