Friday, June 5, 2009

What Have We Learned From The H1N1 Flu Outbreak?

Last month's short-lived flurry of media attention to the spread of a new type of flu has answered some questions about how well the world is prepared for the next worldwide pandemic. It also has revealed some significant shortcomings.

The initial government response to the H1N1 flu outbreak showed relatively strong coordination and communication from U.S. officials but it also underscored how quickly the nation's basic public health capacity would be overwhelmed by a serious outbreak of a pandemic type flu.

That was the conclusion of an analysis by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH), the Center for Biosecurity and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Dr. Jeff Levi, Executive Director of TFAH said, "H1N1 is a real-world test of our initial emergency response capabilities. All of the planning and preparations paid off."

"However," Dr. Levi added, "the outbreak also revealed serious gaps in our nation's preparedness for pandemic flu and other public health emergencies."

The Institute for Crisis Management, in an informal poll of clients and others, still find the majority of businesses and other organizations not taking the threat of a worldwide pandemic seriously. When asked about their pandemic planning, it is not unusual to have a 40 or 50-something executive ask, "What's a pandemic?"

Those that have given thought to pandemic planning often consider it only as a health issue to be dealt with by doctors, hospitals and local and federal health departments. Even hospital administrators and police and emergency services chiefs think about it as a health-issue and continue to ignore the administrative, financial, human resources and legal issues.

The TFAH/RWJF analysis found that school closings have major ramifications for students, parents and employers (well, surprise!). It also found sick leave and policies for limiting mass gatherings were also "problematic."

But perhaps most alarming was their conclusion that even with a mild outbreak, the U.S. health care delivery system was overwhelmed.

ICM has some clients that have been working on their pandemic plan for three years, or more, and have been fine-tuning those plans in recent weeks. But many executives are caught up in the current economic challenges and failing to take the steps to prepare their organizations for the inevitable next pandemic whether it comes this fall or in the next year or two. The world (that includes all of North America) has experienced a pandemic every 30-to-40 years since at least 1500.

The last two, in 1957 and 1968 came very close together and were relatively mild. In the fall of 1957 only 70,000 Americans were killed by the pandemic flu and in 1968 only about 34,000 Americans died, compared to the normal seasonal flu that kills about 35,000 annually in the U.S.

However, the fall wave of the 1918 pandemic left 500,000 Americans dead and an estimated 50-million people died worldwide.

Unlike Y2K planning, the cost of pandemic planning is more about taking the time to make some tough decision, not about how many dollars it will cost. We, at the Institute for Crisis Management can help an organization get started on their pandemic plan for less than $5,000.

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