Why you need to care about Indonesia (again)

A few months ago, I wrote a blog titled "Why you should care about Indonesia." I won't repeat that blog, but will instead urge you to read it if you have not done so already. I'll wait.

OK. Now I will ask you to pay close attention to the latest news stories coming from the archipelago nation of 18,000 islands.  In the past two weeks, two persons have again died from H5N1 infection.  What, you say?  I thought bird flu died out in 2006.

No, grasshopper.  To us in the West, bird flu is some sort of etherial concept, a titillating doomsday scenario such as an asteroid impact or nuclear war. 

And to be sure, bird flu has been extremely quiet lately.  After all, we are preoccupied with presidential candidates, high energy costs and the run-up to the Olympics. But to persons in the Orient, or in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Eastern Europe, or in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, and most certainly in China and South Korea, bird flu is quite real. 

In the past few months, H5N1-infected poultry have been slaughtered by the tens of thousands in Vietnam, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other nations as bird flu returns.  The Chinese government commissioned some 20 million courses of experimental human pre-pandemic H5N1 vaccine, just for the Olympics.  The South Koreans found a housecat dead, infected with H5N1.  That marks yet another confirmed species jump for the virus.  Indonesia estimates 20% of all its stray cats are carriers of H5N1.

And the most disturbing recent news:  This week, in a village near the regional capital of Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, three people are dead and at least thirteen people are hospitalized, and are all suspected of having H5N1.  The sick are on prodigious amounts of the antiviral Tamiflu.  Villagers are reportedly growing more and more concerned as the sick are transported to regional hospitals.

Now the situation in Medan could very well be nothing, nothing at all.  We certainly hope and pray it is nothing.  But folks, this is exactly how a pandemic will start:  A report from a remote village, followed by more and more reports, until huge outbreaks are confirmed and the global press is fixated on the issue. 

By then, it will be too late for you to do anything but try and prepare to the extent possible.  Supplies will be exhausted, your employees will be planning their own ways to cope with the approaching virus, and your bosses will be demanding to know when that work-at-home project will be finished. 

So use this time to ask yourself:  What if this really was the beginning of the Next Pandemic?  Would you and your IT shop be ready?  Have you earnestly thought through what you would do and how you would handle such a situation?

Have you prepared your employees properly?  Have you given them the tools and information necessary to prepare their families?  Because once this thing gets going, your employees' furthest thoughts are for the well-being of your organization.  They will, by and large, care less about you and your organization and instead will be focused on the health of their families, to the exclusion of all else.

And let's face it:  IT people can find work pretty much anywhere.  If they feel that you did not help them prepare, or worse yet did not do everything to protect them, they will owe no allegiance to you or to your organization.

Use this time to learn and to educate.  Cross-training, contingency planning and providing education cost nothing, or next to nothing.  Reach out to the experts and find reliable sources of information.  Get free pamphlets from your local health department.  Download documents from your state or federal pandemic website (the State of Ohio has a nifty one, http://www.ohiopandemicflu.gov, and the HHS website is www.pandemicflu.gov ). Distribute lots of preparedness information to your employees and to their families. 

Even though there is no vaccine for bird flu, there are vaccines to be considered.  For example, flu-enabled bacterial pneumonia was the big killer in the deadly 1918 pandemic, and vaccines such as the PPV vaccine, designed to lessen the opportunities for myriad pneumococcal infections, are available to adults.  It won't prevent the flu, but it improves your chances of surviving the flu -- be it seasonal or pandemic. Of course, check with your doctor first.

At work, find detailed information on how to better prepare your IT shop for pandemics.  Remember, flu pandemics come every century, on average three times per century.  And one flu pandemic per century winds up being pretty lethal.

Every moment you spend on such preparedness activities actually has a huge ROI when it comes to employee productivity.  Studies show an active, consistent pandemic preparedness agenda will actually reduce the number of worker sick days overall and markedly so during flu season, which flares up at the end of September.  And your employees will appreciate the fact you care for them and their families.

So treat every one of these foreign bird flu reports as a dry-run.  Because one day, it won't be. And every day we don't have a flu pandemic actually moves us closer to the next.

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