Flu Preparations: The Good, The Bad, The Pig-Ugly

mexicaan_griep_jpg_255361dSwine flu is coming soon to hit us again, almost anywhere on Earth we might find ourselves. We know that; indeed, some of us possibly intend to seek out one of those swine flu parties to go to, about which I wrote previously in this space, in order to try to gain immunity against the autumn’s follow-up virus.

Of course, normal social intercourse under the shadow of a communicable disease rather demands that individuals take whatever prophylactic measures are necessary to avoid spreading the virus to others, if one has it, or catching it from others if one does not. That’s why illustrations accompanying swine flu news-reports usually show people wearing medical face-masks. Unfortunately, word has now come from the respected Dutch daily Trouw: Face-masks are not the solution.

Says who? Says Louise Knegtel of the BCM Academy (a.k.a. the Business Continuity & Crisis Management Institute), who these days is going around frenetically conducting three or four workshops per day about the “Mexican” (i.e. swine) flu and how businesses should prepare for it. She notes that face-masks will probably be useless because they only work if they are consistently worn, i.e. by everyone and at all times, and humans are simply not made that way. Sure, you can get all draconian and insist upon and enforce the wearing of face-masks by everyone in your firm, but then what about your suppliers? Your customers who come for a consultation/business meeting?

It probably won’t work (and, believe me, that’s not really the Dutch management style in any case). Better to go with other measures like repeatedly cleaning telephones and doorknobs, using the stairs instead of the elevator, and “limiting social contact” within your company, i.e. letting people work from home, holding teleconferences rather than in-person get-togethers, etc. Even this is not enough to make your firm ready for what Ms. Knegtel forecasts could be 50% employee absence if the new flu outbreak gets serious. (Note that a lot of this will likely be the result, not of sick employees per se, but people needing to go home to take care of children whose schools have closed against the illness.) Way before the flu strikes a firm needs to prepare carefully, designating key activities and key personnel, planning how to keep them going even when people go missing, maybe pre-designating a “crisis manager” (presumably one assumed to be least at risk of getting the flu him/herself) to take charge when the problems start.

Whoa, then: all talk of “Kiss me, you swine!” aside, it looks like experts are taking the prospect of a serious swine/Mexican flu epidemic in the fall quite seriously. This point is reinforced by an article in Le Monde of a couple of days ago, Europe: Authorities prepare to confront the virus, a brief, collective effort by Le Monde’s correspondents in the major European capitals (including Paris, bien sûr) to summarize preparations country-by-country. The common pattern emerges of governments having placed huge orders with the relevant pharmacy companies (Sanofi, GSK, Novartis) for flu vaccines and established plans for prioritized vaccinations for if/when the more serious H1N1 flu comes. That is, as large as the orders have been, there is still not enough vaccine for everyone, so public workers, people already in vulnerable states of health, etc. get it first. (Also interesting is that the French name for this disease seems to be “the flu A(H1N1)”; we may need to compile a lexicon if different countries/languages persist in using their own, idiosyncratic swine-flu names like this.)

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