As health officials continue to caution travelers to Southeast Asia about a possible outbreak of avian influenza, International SOS is readying the next generation of its Traveler Locator system. The company claimed between 100 and 200 customers for the business traveler tracking product and said more multinational companies are signing up for pandemic-preparedness services.
"With SARS, it was addressed first and foremost in the field," said Tim Daniel, COO of the online unit of International SOS, a Philadelphia-based provider of medical and security services. "What we are seeing now is more proactive preparation and crisis management planning taking place at corporate headquarters."
The World Health Organization last month reported another case of avian influenza in Indonesia, in addition to reported cases earlier this summer in that country and Vietnam. The total number of cases in Asia between late 2003 and last month was 113, resulting in 57 deaths. Other affected countries include Cambodia, China, Laos and Malaysia. Health officials have said that infection from human-to-human contact is rare but certainly possible. No human vaccine is available.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggested long-term travelers to the region discuss antiviral medication with their health-care providers. It also recommended that U.S. embassies in affected countries provide a list of precautions for U.S. citizens.
The question is not if but when will a pandemic happen, Daniel suggested, "and will it be one of these lethal animal-to-human viruses that are very hard to contain?"
Taking no chances, many multinational companies, both internally and with the help of outside service providers, are assessing risk, developing contingency plans and, when necessary, evacuating travelers from affected regions (BTN, Aug. 11, 2003).
Many of the procedures stem from lessons learned during the SARS outbreak a few years ago (BTN, July 7, 2003).
First introduced in December 2001, the International SOS Traveler Locator Service aggregates raw travel management data from a global distribution system or a corporate travel management company back-office system to track traveler movements, including flight itineraries and hotel reservations. That data is combined with safety and security information gathered from problem areas. Clients using the product field as few as 50 travelers to as many as several thousand, Daniel said.
The newest version enhances communication capabilities and provides more information on past and present travel patterns. "The system ties intelligence information on a given country directly into the travel data so that you can work from one place," Daniel explained.
In addition to the tracking system, International SOS provides programs to help corporate clients sift through multitudes of information sources, build proactive travel policies and even stockpile antiviral medications. These programs are in addition to the company's core medical evacuations service.
"A lot of it is understanding risk tolerance up front rather than in the heat of the moment," Daniel said. "Some companies can just shut down travel in a certain part of the world and not have a huge business consequence; for them to put a travel ban in place to Southeast Asia, it could be done pretty early. For other companies, it would be absolutely crippling to their business."
Daniel also said that big companies must be flexible in their meeting planning. "Bangkok, for example, may be a good fit due to its cost-effectiveness and centralized location but it also is fairly close to some of these hotspot countries," he said. "We are not saying, 'Don't hold meetings in Southeast Asia,' but you do need an extra level of diligence and flexibility."
This spring, risk management firm Ijet also urged corporations to develop contingency plans in case of a pandemic, saying "many doctors believe that if a pandemic virus emerges, the disease will be more contagious than SARS, and more difficult to contain."