Swine Flu: Watching the Southern Hemisphere for Signs of H1N1 Havoc

For security professionals in charge of pandemic planning, swine flu cases unfolding in the lands down under may offer clues into what the rest of the world is in for this fall and winter.

At companies in the North America, Europe and northern Asia, swine flu may be the last thing on the minds of those in charge of security, pandemic planning and disaster preparedness. After all, it's summer and flu season is still months away.

But in the lands down under, where it IS currently flu season, health officials are nervously watching swine flu cases for signs of mutation and a sneak peak at what the rest of the world might be in for this fall and winter. Security professionals in the private sector should be doing the same and planning accordingly.

According to one swine flu report on the GlobalPost website, cases of the virus are exploding in Argentina, and its health minister has declared the country to be the most afflicted in the region, if not the world. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) cites Argentina as the place where the most serious illness is happening. "With 137 official H1N1 deaths, the outbreak in Argentina has been the second deadliest of the pandemic, second only to the United States," the report said. "All of those deaths were registered in the past month, almost a third of them just this past weekend. With the flu up north slowed by the summer but just moving into full swing down here, Argentina may very soon have lost more people to the disease than any country on earth. About half of Argentina's H1N1 deaths have been in and around the capital, Buenos Aires."

There are a lot of variables to chew on here. One could argue that the Argentine government has been slow and sloppy in its swine flu response, upping the death toll. It could also be that the quality of health is poorer in some parts of the country than others, and that more people have pre-existing conditions that make them particularly susceptible to H1N1.

In another report from the Reuters news agency, Dr. Anne Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said, "We are concerned that there will be challenges in the fall."

Whatever the case, disaster preparedness professionals in this hemisphere should be watching, learning and planning. [See also: Swine Flu: A Wake-Up Call for Emergency Planners]

On the physical side, private entities should be hammering out a game plan for who would do what and where if the government decided to restrict our movements to contain an outbreak.

Kevin Nixon, an emergency planning expert who has testified before Congress and served on infrastructure security boards and committees including the Disaster Recovery Workgroup for the Office of Homeland Security and the Federal Trade Commission, puts it this way:

"Companies and employers that have not done so are being urged to establish a business continuity plan should the government direct state and local governments to immediately enforce their community containment plans." [Podcast: How to Prepare for a Swine Flu Pandemic]

If the Federal government does direct states and communities to implement their emergency plans, recommendations, based on the severity of the pandemic, may include:

  • Asking ill people to voluntarily remain at home and not go to work or out in the community for about 7-10 days or until they are well and can no longer spread the infection to others (ill individuals may be treated with influenza antiviral medications, as appropriate, if these medications are effective and available.
  • Asking members of households with a person who is ill to voluntarily remain at home for about 7 days (household members may be provided with antiviral medications, if these medications are effective and sufficient in quantity and feasible mechanisms for their distribution have been developed).
  • Dismissing students from schools (including public and private schools as well as colleges and universities) and school-based activities and closure of childcare programs for up to 12 weeks, coupled with protecting children and teenagers through social distancing in the community, to include reductions of out-of-school social contacts and community mixing. Childcare programs discussed in this guidance include centers or facilities that provide care to any number of children in a nonresidential setting, large family childcare homes that provide care for seven or more children in the home of the provider, and small family childcare homes that provide care to six or fewer children in the home of the provider.
  • Recommending social distancing of adults in the community, which may include cancellation of large public gatherings; changing workplace environments and schedules to decrease social density and preserve a healthy workplace to the greatest extent possible without disrupting essential services; ensuring work-leave policies to align incentives and facilitate adherence with the measures outlined above. [Source: Swine Flu: How to Make Biz Continuity Plans, by Kevin Nixon]

On the IT security side, organizations need to be thinking about how to stay on top of things like log monitoring and patch management in the event of sickness among the IT security staff.

The goal of this column isn't to spread fear over swine flu. In fact, this column is all about shooting down the fear factor. It's far from certain that we're in for a deadly 1918-style pandemic. I personally doubt we'll see the kind of death that ravaged the globe back then. There have been many advances in hygiene and healthcare since then.

But security professionals should always be planning for things that probably won't happen. Before 9-11, a lot of people doubted terrorists would turn commercial aircraft into weapons to take down tall buildings. Before Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people never imagined that most of New Orleans would be submerged the way it ultimately was.

Those who are planning for the unthinkable now may well save a lot of lives later.

Bill Brenner is Senior Editor of CSOonline and CSO Magazine. E-mail your views to him at bbrenner@cxo.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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