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Social and Economic Costs of Influenza

Australian Health Authorities have warned that despite the weather warming up, the worst of the flu season has yet to hit, with the number of cases likely to spike in September & October. The warning coincided with the release of a survey showing colds and flu have cost Australian companies more than $7 billion in lost time over the past year. The survey found that more than a quarter of the $25 billion to $30 billion lost every year due to unscheduled leave was attributed to colds and flu. However the consequences of the latest strain of flu can be far worse than financial impacts. The death of a 60 year old man from the NSW Central Coast in early September from swine flu highlighted the dangers of the illness.

Infectious diseases can undermine economic and commercial viability by placing extraordinary demands on the healthcare system, sapping business confidence, reducing the productive labour force, and destroying individual livelihoods. Historical examples like HIV/AIDS and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) demonstrate just how vulnerable the economy is to major disease outbreaks. SARS alone, which was a comparatively low impact example is estimated to have cost the global economy somewhere between 30 and 50 billion US Dollars. SARS is a potent reminder of the impact infectious diseases can have on the financial security of local and international economies, even though in this instance only a few thousand people were affected globally. In looking at the impact of pandemics on economics, it was reported that during the height of the SARS crisis international travel to Asia went down by a massive 60%. Singapore Airlines for example, one of the world’s most profitable air carriers reported a $6million per day loss. Thankfully for them, and numerous other effected organisations, the SARS crisis only lasted a few short months.

Reports have also suggested that the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus, through workplace absenteeism and business investment reduced Australia’s GDP by as much as 1.3% last financial year. That’s the economic impact of a relatively mild virus that was attributed to fewer than 1000 reported cases in Australia. While the normal seasonal attack of influenza is between 5% and 10%, a more virulent strain could affect 25% – 35% of the population. If this were the case, then a conservative estimate would see between 18,000 and 25,000 deaths and between five and six million reported cases.

There is always a very real chance that this can become a reality. The genetic material that controls the reproduction of the influenza virus is known to be relatively unstable and prone to errors as it reproduces itself. When errors occur, the virus undergoes what is known as an ‘antigenic drift’. It effectively changes. The host’s immune system won’t immediately recognise this ‘different’ virus and so a new infection can occur. This is the reason why we have a normal cycle of new influenza infections each year.

If the 2009/2010 Swine Flu effect was to be scaled up, should a more virulent virus emerge (to the number predicted as possible by some experts), the economic impact on Australian businesses could be immense. Only the organisations with sufficient contingencies in place to deal with these impacts will be fit to survive.

As dire as the economic impacts are, they don’t always have to be expressed in dollars to demonstrate their true effects. Other non-financial impacts can be shown by examples like a report out of India that suggests its armed forces are losing more soldiers in battle over Kashmir to AIDS than to conflict. What about the social impact on communities of people staying away from crowded places, or schools closing, restaurants shutting their doors, concerts going unattended, sporting fields being deserted, or air travel restrictions? All of these have significant social impacts and are a likely reality should a pandemic with true potential for morbidity and mortality emerge.

The spread of infectious diseases threatens the health, wellbeing and quality of life for all Australians. Infectious disease can highlight and deepen inequalities and vulnerabilities within societies like Australia, accentuating existing disadvantage and minority status. This can be highlighted by the prevalence of a number of infectious diseases within some remote aboriginal communities that are known to be otherwise extinct within Australia’s European population. Infectious diseases have a tendency to target the young, the old and the vulnerable of our society, as was the case in the most recent example. Pandemic data from history suggests that remote aboriginal communities have a five times higher infection and mortality rate of disease when compared with the wider Australian community. The effect that has on the social wellbeing of Australia is immeasurable and extremely detrimental.

Unfortunately, in a modern, jet setting society, stopping the spread of infectious diseases like Pandemic Influenza is impossible. For individuals, listening to the warnings, utilising the available vaccines where possible, and maintaining a level of general health that may help to minimise the impact of the infection and early recognition of the signs and symptoms of the disease may help to reduce the impacts.

In preparation for an outbreak, organisations should consider the development of a number of policies or governance for pandemic management, including the implementation of an ‘organisation wide’ flu vaccination program. Other strategies may include conducting a thorough assessment of all employees’ capability to work from home. This will allow a degree of work to continue without the spread of the infection to other employees, helping to minimise the impact and spread of an outbreak across an organisation. For businesses, adequate planning and preparation through the development of adaptable Pandemic Management Plans that are continually reviewed and tested should be considered as essential internal tools for dealing with the impacts of pandemics.

Maintaining the continuity of any business through periods of significant disruption is always difficult, whether it is as a result of an Influenza Pandemic or a significant physical disruption. However, with the development of organisation wide business continuity and pandemic management plans, maintaining ‘business as usual’ is always possible.

Written by Grant Davis
Business Continuity Consultant, RiskLogic Pty Ltd

Categorized: Uncategorized