Bird Flu Takes Off

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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Bird flu is making a comeback -- in a big way.

In August, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that a mutant strain of the deadly virus is spreading into Asia and other areas.

"Birds move around all the time," says Katherine L. Harmon, director of health intelligence at iJET, an Annapolis, Md.-based business-resiliency specialist. "With migratory flocks and farming practices, if people don't maintain a certain vigilance or surveillance, Avian influenza could be a bigger issue in the future."

The H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus had been largely off the radar screens of HR managers -- and the public in general -- since its presence fell from 63 nations in 2006 to just six in 2011: Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

But bird migrations and trade have led to the disease spreading recently, and it's even moving into countries that were previously virus-free, according to the FAO report.

There have been 800 new cases recorded between 2010 and 2011, the report states, but there only have been 565 cases found in humans since the disease first appeared years ago. That said, it's still deadly. A six-year-old girl died from the virus in Cambodia on Aug. 14, the eighth such death in that country this year.

The U.N. also reports that the virus recently landed in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia.

The good news is that the new strain is no more dangerous to humans than the previous one, says Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer at the FAO. It also behaves the same.

But HR leaders at multinationals may want to pay particular attention to China, which has found a variant strain -- one that "is able to bypass the defenses provided by existing vaccines" according to the FAO report.

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HR leaders should urge employees in affected areas to use common sense. Steer clear of outdoor markets. Don't handle infected birds and make sure to eat in reputable locations where food is properly cleaned and cooked.

"This is a virus that has infected relatively few people on the global scale of known viruses," says iJET's Harmon. "Measles, for example, infects 450 people per day. When you think about it in statistical terms, [avian flu] isn't something that is near the same import to human health.

Gary Lynch, global leader of the Risk Intelligence Strategies and Resiliency Solutions practice of New York-based Marsh Risk Consulting, says nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of companies doing business in China have a pandemic-preparedness plan in place.

Many of those plans, however, are incomplete. Only one-third (35 percent) have stockpiled face masks, bleach and sanitizer, while roughly two-thirds (68 percent) haven't purchase any vaccines or antiviral medications, according to Marsh.

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