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by Senior Editor

WHO Declares Swine flu a Pandemic. Now What?

Jun 11, 20095 mins
Disaster RecoveryIT Leadership

The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level to 6, making swine flu the first true pandemic in more than 40 years. Here's what it means for your company.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared swine flu the first pandemic in more than 40 years.

The news arrived with none of the panic that swirled in the air when news of the virus first emerged in late April. But security experts say there are still actions emergency planners should be taking to ensure order if later waves of the H1N1 virus prove more deadly.

By raising the pandemic level to Phase 6, WHO has confirmed that sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus is happening at the community-level in multiple countries. To date, the virus has appeared in 74 countries, including Mexico, the US, UK, Australia, Japan, and Chile. There have been approximately 28,000 cases with 141 deaths so far, though the move to Phase 6 does not necessarily mean swine flu is causing more severe illness or more deaths.

But it does mean the world is threatened by an unpredictable virus that could grow weaker or stronger with time. History has shown that pandemics often start with a mild first wave, followed in the fall and winter by a more lethal wave. The best example of this was the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19, which killed roughly 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.

Emergency preparedness experts say there’s no cause for panic, but that history serves as a reminder that organizations should always be thinking about how to keep the machinery moving in the event something big and unexpected happens. [See: Now That the Hype Is Over, Keep Planning]

For emergency planners, there are both physical and cyber security challenges to think about regarding swine flu and other potential pandemic viruses.

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, says 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.

“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,” Nixon says. 

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.

Kevin Coleman, a strategic management consultant at Technolytics, says companies should also plan for limitations on business travel and even bringing in extra cleaning crews and keeping employees at home if they complain of so much as a sniffle.

“Encourage anyone who feels the least bit sick to stay home,” Coleman says. “If an employee can do all the work from home on company laptops and VPNs that they do in the office, there’s no reason to have them come in. If you can limit exposure from the get-go, why wouldn’t you?”

Meantime, Coleman said, companies should ramp up the cleaning crew activity that’s already going on, mostly after office hours. Bringing in extra cleaning crews to wipe down heavily-touched surfaces like doors, walls, phones and keyboards is money well spent, he said.

“Employees can also do their part to limit the spread of flu by carrying around antibacterial hand wipes,” he said, noting that some of his clients have already pulled back on the amount of business travel employees can do.

It’s far from certain that we’re in for a deadly 1918-style pandemic. Either way, security experts say going over the scenarios and building a game plan is time well spent.