Panic could overwhelm communications in pandemic


  • World
  • Friday, 28 Apr 2006

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Telephone and Internetservices could be overwhelmed and shut down in the early stages of a bird flu pandemic as people panic and try to work from home, according to a report released on Thursday. 

Businesses need to think of other ways to keep going as governments close schools and direct people to stay home, management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton reported. 

The company issued the report based on a exercise conducted at the World Economic Forum in January, involving 30 chief executive officers of companies, government ministers, and senior officials of the United Nations. 

The scenario assumed a pandemic was already underway in Germany and the participants thought through the consequences. 

What they found matched with what other experts have predicted -- large numbers of people will stay home from work, either because they are sick, caring for family members, because schools are closed or simply because they are afraid. 

And many may presume that they can telecommute -- perhaps too many, the officials and business leaders agreed. 

"Telecommunications (phone and Internet) will likely be overwhelmed early in a pandemic, with experts predicting shut-downs in two to four days, meaning that telecommuting will not be viable and alternative communications need to be explored," the report read. 

"Governments will likely direct the general population to stay in their homes, and minimize social contact," it added. 

"Alternate facilities, such as schools and churches will need to become hospitals with the recovered filling vacant essential jobs. This will require individuals to receive a minimal level of training to perform critical functions." 

The H5N1 avian influenza has spread to more than 40 countries, from Asia into Europe and across parts of Africa. Experts predict it will become permanently established in the world's bird population. 

HUMANS RARELY INFECTED 

It rarely infects humans, but has made 204 people ill, killing 113 of them. If the virus mutated so that it could pass easily from person to person, it would set off a global pandemic that would infect hundreds of millions. Depending on its virulence, it could kill tens of millions of people. 

Businesses and government should start making clear their priorities now for essential services and personnel, the report said. They should list who should get scarce antiviral drugs and vaccines first. 

The report also raised several critical questions: 

"If you expect everyone to stay at home, how do they get healthcare such as antivirals? What happens when counterfeit Tamiflu and masks hit the black market?" 

Tamiflu, known generically as oseltamivir, is one of only two drugs that can treat influenza, if taken early enough after infection. Manufacturer Roche AG cannot make the pills fast enough to fill demand for government stockpiles. 

The report also asked who would pay for the extra healthcare needed, especially for first responders. 

It said businesses should look to ways to preserve their capital as markets panic, perhaps by moving to gold. 

Business leaders said their first priority would be the protection of their employees and families. They said companies may need provide essential employees with food and care. 

They would then have to decide which nonessential operations to shut down for the duration of the pandemic, which could last for more than a year, and how to retrainhealthy employees to fill needed posts. 

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