Philadelphia Inquirer
November 20, 2005


By Tom Belden


That's the best word to describe what some experts are saying about
the economic and social upheaval that a global outbreak of avian flu
could cause.

So far, the H5N1 virus -- the scientific designation for avian flu -
has killed millions of birds in Asia and Europe, and half of the more
than 130 people in Southeast Asia who contracted it from infected
birds. There is no evidence the disease has spread from one human to

But agreement is widespread on the need for businesses -- and
especially the travel industry -- to prepare for the possibility that
avian flu mutates into a strain that people could transmit to one
another, something some health experts warn is inevitable.

At the same time, there is worry that overreaction to what is not yet
a serious threat to humans could prompt millions of people to stop
traveling, and worldwide trade to slow dramatically.

"What the travel industry is trying to do is prepare but not panic,"
said Suzanne Fletcher, president of the National Business Travel
Association, which represents 2,500 corporate travel managers, agents
and vendors. "We want to avoid the Chicken Little syndrome that the
sky is falling."

Fletcher and others cited the epidemic of SARS -- severe acute
respiratory syndrome -- which over five months in 2003 killed about 10
percent of the 8,000 people it infected. Despite being confined to
Toronto and a handful of places in Asia, SARS caused a steep decline
in business and leisure travel to much of Asia and to Canada.

Many companies established travel restrictions during the SARS
epidemic, which they could revive in a flu pandemic. Patty Seif, a
spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. in Philadelphia, said the
company had not reactivated the policies. "The policy called for no
travel to places where SARS had occurred," Seif said. "We have a
pretty good process in place for notifying employees of ways they can
conduct business that would reduce the necessity of travel."

Fletcher, who is also corporate travel manager for Weyerhaeuser Co.,
the Seattle maker of forest products, said the most important thing
employees could do was "stay healthy, so that your immune system
works... . I feel like a kindergarten mother when I say this, but you
need to tell people, 'Wash your hands, dispose of tissues after
they're used." Also, be aware of people around you" who may appear

The reason for concern about avian flu is clear: No infectious disease
has greater potential than influenza to quickly kill millions of
people. Consider 1918-19, when 30 million to 50 million people
succumbed in a pandemic, or worldwide outbreak, of the Spanish flu.
The 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic caused 70,000 deaths just in the United
States, and about 34,000 people in the United States died during the
1968-69 outbreak of Hong Kong flu.

Some of the grimmest warnings about the effect of an avian flu
pandemic have come in articles published this year in medical and
other journals by Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of
Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

"The arrival of a pandemic influenza would trigger a reaction that
would change the world overnight," Osterholm wrote in the July/August
issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. He painted a grim picture of how
the health-care system, medical suppliers, food providers, and the
transportation system could be severely strained.

Because quantities of antiviral drugs to combat bird flu would be
limited, Osterholm said, "foreign trade and travel would be reduced or
even ended in an attempt to stop the virus from entering new countries
- even though such efforts would probably fail, given the
infectiousness of influenza and the volume of illegal crossings that
occur at most borders... . Global, regional and national economies
would come to an abrupt halt -- something that has never happened due
to HIV, malaria or TB, despite their dramatic impact on the developing

The possibility of a flu pandemic prompted the Bush administration to
stage a two-day public-awareness blitz early this month and to ask
Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency funds for disease surveillance,
vaccine development and stockpiling, and preparedness among local
public health departments.

Two weeks ago, Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor-based
Business Travel Coalition, devoted his new Internet-based BTC Radio
show, Talking Business Travel, to avian flu and what businesses need
to do to prepare, should the disease start to spread among people.

Among the recommendations by the organization, which represents
corporate travel managers and business travelers, are for companies to
have a plan to deal with workers who may be exposed or who contract
the disease, and to protect workplaces from infection, he said.

Companies may tell employees returning from trips to infected areas to
stay home until they can no longer transmit the disease, and may want
to screen anyone coming to a workplace. Businesses may "need to take
hygiene to a whole new level," regularly disinfecting doorknobs, ATMs,
and anything else workers regularly handle, Mitchell said.

Companies also need to be able to conduct business remotely, using
teleconferencing or e-mail, and to delegate responsibility for making
decisions overseas, in case travel is curtailed, he said.

Tim Daniel, chief operating officer of International SOS, the global-
travel-assistance company that has its North American headquarters in
Philadelphia, said that close to half of the major multinational
corporations that were its clients were making such contingency plans.
Many government agencies and international nongovernment organizations
are doing the same, he said.

Every business needs someone responsible for monitoring avian-flu
information, said Daniel, whose company's global headquarters is in

"There's a lot of interest and knowledge borne out by SARS," he said.
Many organizations, "including our own, were caught off guard... .
With SARS, over 10 to 12 weeks, and with it only in parts of China,
Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto, you pretty much saw a grinding-to-a-
halt of nonessential travel."

The blow that SARS dealt airlines has prompted the Air Transport
Association, the major U.S. carriers' trade group, to keep a close
watch on avian flu and to urge travelers and travel-industry workers
to monitor the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Web site
for updates.

The organization has "a very real concern... without discounting the
seriousness of the disease, that the near-term response will be people
will overreact and stop traveling," said Katherine Andrus, an attorney
for the association.

"Now, it's a disease of birds," she said. "It's something that needs
to be prepared for. But it's not an immediate threat... and we don't
expect people to change their travel plans."

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or