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Pandemic preparedness has risen in priority at many multinational organizations amid growing fears about the potential spread of avian influenza. Given the central but unwitting role business travel could play in exposing employees to contagion and transmitting disease around the globe, such preparation generally involves travel management departments and, experts said, should include local and national authorities, suppliers and corporate peers.
The World Health Organization last week confirmed the first human case of infection from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in Thailand, bringing the global tally since 2003 to 232 human cases. Against that backdrop, health and travel management professionals pointed to lessons learned from the SARS episode a few years ago and now advise organizations to proactively develop contingencies--addressing the full gamut of corporate policy decisions and logistical details--as part of an overall business continuity plan.
"While person-to-person transmission still is hypothetical, the reality for corporates in Asia is that [avian influenza] is already an issue," said Richard Martin, managing director of International Market Assessment Asia, speaking last month during an Association of Corporate Travel Executives webcast. "Everyone is checking with everyone to see if they are ready." Martin added that while many IMA Asia clients last year viewed their planning as an "Asia-only effort, this is clearly the sort of thing that is not only going to run in one region."
On an enterprise-wide level, many organizations over the past decade already implemented business continuity plans, following earthquakes, the 11 Sept 2001 terror attacks, other big-city bombings and, more recently, Hurricane Katrina. "In terms of risk that affects a company, that you normally consider as part of a business continuity plan, pandemics are quite different than anything you have run into before," Martin said, noting the uncertainty as to when it would start, from where it would emanate and how long it would last. "Most business continuity plans, at most, cover two to three months and then you continue normal operations. But the duration for pandemic is, at a minimum, two years. It is a big challenge to figure out how your business continuity plan would go out two years." The best way to do so, he added, "is by networking with customers, suppliers, the local community etc., in a way that goes beyond the normal business relationship."
In terms of specific travel management planning, a common strategy for many global companies is implementation of a traveler tracking tool, furnished by travel management companies or other suppliers. Such tracking mechanisms quickly can tell managers where employees are, how long they have been there and where they are going. In a recent BCD Travel survey of 181 client organizations, 83 percent of survey respondents said they now use traveler tracking tools and 53 percent said they do so on a global basis.
"If companies have a traveler advisory program and traveler tracking in place, that serves as a good base to start layering in the pandemic plan," said Melissa Kreidie, manager of online services at International SOS, also speaking during the ACTE webcast.
That plan, Kreidie suggested, should include intensifying levels of travel restrictions to mirror the phases of a pandemic life cycle. "Right now, we are in Phase 3 (the first phase of the pandemic 'alert' period). There is little risk to travelers and no significant restrictions on international or in-country travel," she explained. In Phase 4, organizations still would have discretion in limiting travel, "defining for themselves what non-essential means and deciding on an approvals process." But in more advanced phases, local, national and international authorities would likely close borders, enact travel bans and insist on quarantines.
By Phase 6, Kreidie explained, risks in directly affected countries would spread around the globe. "The recommendation would be to ban all but the most essential travel, everywhere," she said.
There are several other steps to consider. Many organizations, for example, have been stockpiling such antiviral drugs as Tamiflu and Relenza, and shipping them to offices around the world. But such steps should only be considered one element of a broader strategy.
"Tamiflu is not an antidote for avian flu," said John Caldwell, president of Caldwell Associates, discussing risk management at the National Business Travel Association conferencein Chicago last month. "It is a medicine that reduces the seriousness of the sickness."
Peggy Luebbert, infection control and epidemiology consultant at the Center for Biopreparedness, went a step further. "Experts are advising that we do not stockpile antiviral medications," she said during the ACTE webcast. "As the virus mutates, the odds are that Tamiflu or Relenza may not be as effective as we think."
Among other suggestions, global organizations should establish policies to allow certain employees to work from home, determine which functions can be handled remotely due to office closures and prepare evacuation and repatriation plans. BCD Travel also advises clients to form "a cross-functional pandemic team that meets on a regular schedule to update all company procedures" and to launch "an intranet site to communicate company and health information to all operations."
No matter the specific travel management contingencies or broader business continuity plans developed by organizations, IMA Asia's Martin said communication is the key to effective containment. "Company A is not really talking to Company B about the issues. Nor is there particularly strong communication going on between the public sector and the private sector," he said. "There is a long tradition in corporations that when you do planning, you keep it quiet. You do not announce it to the market. But if you are a public company, I suspect that very soon the market will start asking about what you are doing about pandemic preparedness."
The World Health Organization
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control
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