Businesses still unprepared for pandemic threat

11 December 2006 Cathey Findley Public Relations

A year on from its first report Pandemic Influenza: Managing the risks of an invisible threat which called on businesses to wake up to the potential risks of a pandemic, Aon Corp, a leading global insurance brokerage, has released Pandemic Influenza: Exploding the myths - its second white paper on the subject.

The new report analyses the steps that have been taken in the past year to protect businesses against the inevitability of a pandemic, calling on them to increase their dedication toward contingency planning.

Whilst advances over the last year have been made, including additional research into the cause and effects of the 1918 pandemic, rather than spurring businesses into action, a sense of complacency seems to be creeping in. Although we are seeing less column inches devoted to the issue, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) demonstrate that the H5N1 virus, which is causing the most concern, is becoming increasingly fatal, having now spread into 10 countries compared to just four a year ago.

Guy Scott, CEO of Aon SA's risk services division, says that although South Africa has largely managed to avoid the H5N1 virus, we should not become complacent as pandemics are not only an international phenomenon, but also a South African concern. "Another pandemic is inevitable. It's not a question of if, but when - and South African companies need to prepare themselves, because the impact of a pandemic is global".

Aon's white paper dispels some of the myths that have contributed to this sense of complacency and shows that preparations are inconsistent across the world and will not provide adequate protection against the spread of the pandemic. Few businesses have any real experience internally of establishing thorough procedures sufficient to protect staff that are both practical and cost effective. Businesses should be looking at how they can reduce the opportunity for virus transmission in their processes and operations.

Businesses cannot rely on government response, development of vaccines or the supply of antiviral drugs to protect their people and operations. Aons white paper finds that although some governments have contingency plans, and that antiviral production capacity has grown exponentially and more attention is being given to vaccine development, these do not mean that the chances of a swift mass distribution of medicine are increased and disruption to daily life is mitigated.

The white paper also demonstrates how risk managers overestimate the ability of insurers to meet client needs. For example, insurance cover for events such as pandemics, which are inevitable, spread globally and are set to result in major losses, is difficult to obtain and if available, offers only stringent terms and conditions.

Steve Pearce, Director, Global Crisis Management, Aon Corp, commented, A step change is required in the risk management measures across the globe to ensure that preparations are maintained at the highest possible level for both countries and their business communities. Aons white paper 'Exploding the myths' underlines how vitally important it is for businesses to take responsibility and mitigate where possible, the pandemic risks facing them.

Business continuity plans must provide a tailored framework for companies rather than relying on more general government defence plans, which may be inadequate to cover business exposures or advances in vaccines and anti-viral production, which are untested.

"However, business continuity planning is just one part of the exercise that should be undertaken in order to prepare effectively for a pandemic. Before any plan is contemplated, a full risk evaluation needs to be carried out followed by impact analysis and assessment of strategies and solutions. For those with plans already in place, regular testing and evaluation is vital."

Guy Scott, CEO of Aon SA's risk services division

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