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Health Agency Labels Swine Flu a Pandemic

June 11, 2009
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The World Health Organization has declared the H1N1 flu a pandemic because of its expanding global reach, but the virus’s mild intensity means many employers with pandemic plans are probably content to wait and see.

“We’re watching the situation, but not doing anything different than what we’ve been doing,” said Delia Vetter, director of benefits for Boston-area-based technology firm EMC. “Our plan is designed to be able to respond to the recommendations of the WHO and the CDC.”

Vetter said the company plans to communicate about the pandemic declaration with its approximately 40,000 employees worldwide and ask them to take basic precautions against spreading illness.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, the first declaration in 41 years, because of the flu’s easy human-to-human spread. As of Thursday, June 11, officials have confirmed nearly 28,774 cases of H1N1, commonly known as swine flu, in 74 countries.

“The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization in a statement to the media.

The 144 deaths attributed to the strain, far fewer than the hundreds of thousands killed each year globally by seasonal flu, are the result of its moderate severity, health officials said. The U.S. accounts for 13,217 cases and 27 deaths; in Mexico, where the strain was first discovered, 6,241 cases and 108 deaths have been reported.

Pandemic-preparedness expert Edward Minyard, a partner at Accenture Technology Consulting, said the pandemic declaration has prompted public-sector employers, whose charters generally require them to have a pandemic plan, to review their preparedness plans and conduct preparedness exercises with other public agencies.

Minyard said the WHO’s announcement Thursday has reinforced the notion that the virus, though currently mild, is not going away soon and that employers would do well to be prepared should the flu become more virulent. Employers with plans should review them and make sure a company’s vendors are also prepared.

In all honesty this announcement is not a surprise,” Minyard said. “The folks tracking this thing won’t do anything differently. Hopefully, though, those who weren’t doing anything will wake up to the need to have a plan in place.”

Many employers, however, are not prepared.

A survey released Tuesday, June 9, by Mercer showed that 40 percent of companies do not have an HR policy in place to deal with health-related emergencies. The swine flu pandemic has motivated more than half of the employers surveyed to create contingency and back-up plans.

Health officials said they expected more fatalities as the flu spreads to less-developed parts of the world, where public health systems are poorer.

“Although the pandemic appears to have moderate severity in comparatively well-off countries, it is prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture as the virus spreads to areas with limited resources, poor health care, and a high prevalence of underlying medical problems,” Chan said.

—Jeremy Smerd

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