Meanwhile, Congress is trying to pass bills to hasten the production of vaccines against such a deadly scourge, countries are stockpiling anti-flu drugs, and companies are starting to plan how they might cope with an epidemic (see BW Online, 10/26/05, "Avian-Flu Panic Takes Wing in Europe").
So how worried should we really be? And what can companies do? Here are some answers:
My company is offering flu shots. Will the standard flu shot help protect me against avian flu?
No. There's a world of difference between the normal year-to-year flu and a so-called pandemic strain of the disease. The regular flu kills an average of 36,000 Americans each year and makes millions sick. You can get some measure of protection against the year-to-year ailment with a standard flu shot.
A pandemic variety of flu is another beast entirely. A few times every hundred years, a strain of flu mutates in such a way that it is far more deadly than regular flu and still easily transmitted from person to person. The classic example -- the 1918 flu. It killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and 50 million people around the world. Between 2.5% and 5% of those who got sick died.
But 1918 was a long time ago. Why the worries now?
Scientists now know that the 1918 flu was caused by an avian virus that suddenly made the leap from birds to humans. Now, Asia is the grips of a bird-flu epidemic. The disease's spread is especially tough to control because the virus infects not just domestic chickens, ducks, and other birds, but also wild flocks. Migrating wild birds have carried the virus to Europe and are soon expected to bring it to the U.S.
How do people get bird flu?
After extremely close contact with infected birds. That's why it's still considered safe to travel to Asia or other areas where bird flu rages.
Still, wouldn't it be a good precaution to restrict people from traveling to or from Asia and any place else that has been affected?
There's no need for such restrictions yet. The only precaution that's needed is to stay away from actual contact with live birds -- and if people want to be extra-careful, stay away from dead birds in a marketplace as well.
If I do need to travel to a place where they have found bird flu, is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?
Yes, as long as the meat or eggs are cooked.
If bird flu is hard to get, why are people so scared?
Roughly half of the humans who have contracted bird flu have died -- a far higher mortality rate than the 1918 flu. Imagine, therefore, the devastation if this virus "learns" to jump from person to person, instead of very occasionally (and only with very close contact) moving from bird to human. "We view the risk of a pandemic to be greater today than it was before 1997, or before 2003, when we really saw avian flu take off," explains Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, Special Assistant to the President for biological defense policy.
Of course, the next pandemic doesn't have to be caused by a mutation of this particular bird virus. It could come from mutations in other flu viruses as well. What is certain is that eventually another pandemic will occur. Ten have been noted and recorded in the last 300 years.
So what do we do in the meantime?
Compared to 1918, we now have far better ways to spot -- and to try to limit the spread of -- a new pandemic strain. By studying the 1918 virus, for instance, scientists have learned that a few crucial genetic changes must be made before a bird virus can make the leap to a human-transmitted strain. It's possible, therefore, to sample bird viruses and analyze them for those changes. So far, the news is good. No known strain of bird flu has yet gotten close to making all of the crucial mutations.
Then, if a potential pandemic strain does appear, countries could slow its spread by such measures as limiting travel. That could buy enough time to make a vaccine for that strain -- if countries have managed to also put enough manufacturing capacity in place.
Should companies be making contingency plans now?
Yes. In some ways, planning for a pandemic is similar to the planning for any disaster. "The bottom line is that while a pandemic is not like a hurricane -- it doesn't knock down telephone poles and destroy roads -- it does produce severe absenteeism," explains Venkayya. So businesses need to figure out how they can keep essential functions going with, say, only 60% of their employees.
What specific steps can business take?
Plan to cope with disruptions in water, power, sanitation, and other essential services.
Make sure that there are backups for essential employees.
Identify essential outside operations, such as a steady stream of parts from suppliers, and figure out alternatives.
Set up services and tools so that employees can work from home, which will help ensure that sick workers stay home.
There may even be ways to reduce transmission at work, from simple measures like using masks and hand sanitizers to installing virus-trapping filters in the air-circulation system. "If people are at work, maybe they shouldn't meet in rooms -- maybe they ought to just meet by phone," says Venkayya.
Is everyone -- companies, countries, individuals -- overreacting?
The chances of a pandemic happening this year are actually very slim, so there's no need for panic. On the other hand, it will happen someday, so preparation now will pay off in the long run. And many of the steps taken to prepare for flu will help in the case of other diseases or natural disasters.
Carey is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau