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Volume 31, Issue 4

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The flu season, influenza, it seems common and unquestionably less dramatic than something as dreadful as a terrorist attack. It seems like everyone gets the flu from time to time. And sometimes it seems to be worse than others. You start to feel weak, get the chills, etc. You know you will be out of commission for a few days. Then it’s back to work. If we, as recovery planners, have done our jobs correctly, we allow for the loss of key personnel in our recovery plans in the event of illness or due to the event itself.

In this day and age, we don’t think much about epidemics and plagues that have left millions dead. As of late, we did show concern over the SARS outbreak with about 800 deaths, but this was small in comparison to the great plagues in history. There aren’t many people left that remember, but the pandemic of 1918 killed more people in the U.S. than were killed on both sides of the Civil War. The worldwide estimate ranges between 30 and 50 million dead.

If anyone doubts a flu season could cause that much of an impact in the U.S, all one needs to do is examine what happened in 1918. The number of Americans who died from influenza is estimated at 675,000. Of those, almost 200,000 deaths were recorded in the month of October alone. So, with the world population today having more than tripled since 1918, what is to stop a modern flu pandemic from claiming upwards of 100 million lives worldwide? The answer is ... nothing can stop it. 

If we take a look at what our world looked like in 1918 we would see:

  • We were fighting World War I.
  • The average life expectancy in the U.S. was 50 years.
  • The five leading causes of death in the U.S. were:
    1. Influenza
    2. Tuberculosis
    3. Diarrhea
    4. Heart disease
    5. Stroke

Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores. According to one pharmacist, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.”

Today, most of us feel that our world is so much more advanced. Something as ordinary as the flu could not possibly create the kind of impact as it did almost 100 years ago. However researchers say that we experience a pandemic around every 30 years. The last pandemics were in 1957 and again in 1968 (so much for the 30 years). The Asian flu of 1957 killed about 70,000 in the United States, while the 1968 Hong Kong flu led to about 34,000 deaths.

The catalyst for a pandemic is thought to be farming practices in Southeast Asia, but it can occur any place in the world where there is domestication of animals. The 1918 pandemic is believed to have originated in Kansas. The proposed cycle seems to be when a virus jumps from birds to pigs, then to humans and contains surface proteins that people have no natural defenses. The next pandemic will find a smaller, per capita, hospital system with fewer beds to handle a flood of very sick patients.

While today’s anti-flu drugs will have an effect on the new strain, supplies of the vaccine would be pushed to the limits and it will take time to develop and distribute. This cannot take place until after the first wave of the outbreak hits and will be too late for many.

No matter how you do the math, we’re long overdue for the next outbreak. Can you remember the panic and costs to the travel industry during the SARS scare? That was considered a minor outbreak. Imagine what the impact would be on business if we experienced another 1918-type of pandemic.

Even with the medical world on top of the situation, what most of us don’t know is there are many types of flu viruses. The viruses in the annual vaccine change each year based on scientists’ predictions about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year. Most of the common flu viruses are related to the last year’s strain, and people have some level of resistance leftover from the previous year. There is still a large amount of guess work involved in the development of the next vaccine to be issued.

If you have been paying attention to the latest reports out of Asia, we may be on the brink of a worldwide epidemic from a new flu virus that may mutate to become as deadly and infectious as the 1918 virus. This will be a new strain. People will have no immunity to this type of virus, avian influenza (bird flu), and scientists will not have time to develop a vaccine prior to an outbreak.

According to Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists believe it is highly likely the virus that has swept through bird populations in Asia will evolve into a pathogen deadly for humans.

“We are expecting more human cases over the next few weeks because this is high season for avian influenza in that part of the world,” Gerberding said in remarks at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in February of this year.

Although cases of human-to-human transmission have been rare, “Our assessment is that this is a very high threat (based on the known history of the flu virus).”

The genes of the avian flu mutate quickly, and experts believe it is highly likely the virus will evolve into one that is deadly for humans.

As recovery planners, we are not tasked with finding a cure for what may dwarf the recent tsunamis in its impact. Our primary objective is to protect our business. Instead of just planning for the typical risks like a flood or fire, we must plan for large losses of employees to perform the daily tasks at work that seem common place.

During the 1918 pandemic, one-in-four Americans were affected. Could you imagine having 25 percent of your organization out sick? Not to mention the fear factor of employees not wanting to leave their homes to come to work. Employees would also need to deal with the emotional impact of dealing with large losses of life to family members, friends, and co-workers.

The good news is that the world did not come to an end in 1919. After the 10 month pandemic passed, the world went on. Businesses, including international business, resumed and people went on to great things. Many companies failed, but most survived. This is in part due to the simplicity of the times.

In our modern world, things are much more complex. We are much more dependent on supporting functions, such as super computers, high-speed data transmission, racks of servers, large volume data storage equipment, and the highly trained people to maintain and run them. In order to keep our businesses afloat during an event such as this, we will need to create a plan that allows for a minimal amount of people to keep the business running at an acceptable level during the crisis, and the crisis could last for months!

The best way for this to be accomplished is to review and fully document all of the manual and automated processes in your organization that are deemed critical. This is similar to a standard business impact analysis (BIA). However you are not looking at it from a loss of the building or a loss of hardware and software dependency standpoint but from a human element.

You will not have the luxury of a large group of people knowing how to run payroll, process orders, and run a help desk, etc. The documentation must be detailed enough to guide a novice through all tasks in any given critical procedure. After all critical processes are documented, a detailed cross training program needs to be implemented across the entire organization. If your disaster recovery plan does not have a section for dealing with the emotional impact of a disaster, you need to add one and add the possibility of a pandemic. Keep in mind that a situation like this will involve your corporate headquarters as well as branch offices worldwide. Your supply vendors will also be affected.

Your plan must address your state’s quarantine and isolation laws. You can obtain information from your state’s department of health. It is important this is reviewed and documented in your recovery plans in advance to learn what you can expect of government agencies if an outbreak would occur.

Prevention in our profession is a high priority, and while trying not to be simplistic, the best way to increase your chances of avoiding the spread of the flu comes straight from mom – cover for a cough or sneeze and a “good” hand washing!

We all know to wash our hands before eating or after using the restroom. However, you need to do more than just remove the visible dirt. The Centers for Disease Control states that “good” hand washing involves removing the skin oils where organisms can remain after a quick pass under the faucet. They recommend using plenty of soap, scrub for at least 15 seconds, rinse thoroughly, and dry with a paper towel. Use the paper towel to turn off the water. There are also many products on the market that contain alcohol to “sanitize” your hands if you cannot get to a sink. These are good in a pinch, but nothing beats a “good” hand washing. You can greatly reduce your exposure by practicing something this basic.

I am also a strong advocate of sick time. Employees who think they are being “team players” by coming to work despite being ill are not doing you or the company any favors. Employees who report to work sick should be sent home immediately. Have them work from home if they insist on working.

We will also need to monitor the reports coming out of the World Health Organization (www.who.int) in order to be updated on the current status of the outbreak. I hate to pile on one more scenario to the heap of potential events that we are challenged to confront, but this situation is not being reported widely in the press and the potential for a catastrophic impact is greater than any event we have faced in our lifetime.

Greg Holdburg, MRP, has been in the IT industry for more than 30 years and has been involved in the recovery planning industry for more than 15 years. He is manager of disaster recovery services for S1 Corporation, based in Atlanta. He is on the board of the Southeastern Recovery Planners Association and is a Certified Master Recovery Planner from the University of Richmond and has a bachelor’s degree in computer science.