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Mon, Oct 31, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Asian companies brace for bird-flu epidemic

THREAT ASSESSMENT The disease is still only a potential threat but companies are busy drafting contingency plans, varying from Vitamin C pills to evacuation plans for expats

AFP , SINGAPORE

Just two years after the SARS outbreak sent Asian economies into intensive care, companies across the region are bracing themselves for the vastly more malignant threat of a bird-flu pandemic.

The SARS crisis of 2003 killed about 800 people out of 8,000 cases and cost regional economies an estimated US$18 billion, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The hardest hit were Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia. Travel-related industries were the most severely affected by the disease, which was spread by air passengers from China and Hong Kong.

But an avian-flu pandemic has the potential to kill millions worldwide and affect all economic sectors.

The ADB says in the Asia-Pacific region alone, the economic cost of a bird flu pandemic could exceed US$250 billion.

At the moment, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the bird flu threat is still in the third of six phases, with over 60 deaths recorded in Asia since 2003 and rare instances of suspected human-to-human infection.

Phase 6 is the doomsday scenario -- the full pandemic phase with sustained human-to-human infection in the general population.

"Phase 3, where we are now, is kind of the warning phase. It's out there, we know it's out there, we really have to pay attention. We have to plan," said Jeffrey Staples, senior medical adviser to emergency services firm International SOS.

"My guess is that at Phase 5, governments will probably impose international travel restrictions," he said in an interview.

"So what this gives us is a window of opportunity whereby we can consider moving people around in Phase 4," he said, referring to the possibility of relocating expatriate corporate staff out of affected countries.

"Phase 3 is probably too early to move people, but it's not too early to think and to start planning in a holistic way," he said.

With the virus now confirmed to have spread into Europe, companies across Asia are preparing emergency plans for a pandemic which is widely assumed to be only a matter of time.

Contingency measures ranging from free Vitamin C pills for workers and taking poultry off the canteen menu, to costly evacuation plans for expatriate staff and their families are being drafted by companies.

Nestle Malaysia said it was in the process of drafting a bird-flu contingency plan, with guidance from local authorities and its headquarters in Switzerland.

In China, Charles Zhang, public relations manager of Procter and Gamble in Guangzhou Province, said all staff had been urged to "pay attention to their personal health and bird-flu prevention measures."

P&G, which has 5,000 employees in China, 1 percent of them expatriates, is not stockpiling masks or shoe gloves and so far has no alternate plans for transport in case supply chains become bottled up.

There are no evacuation plans at the moment. Neither does the group have any stocks of anti-viral drug Tamiflu because in China, people needed to go to hospitals and get prescriptions from doctors, Zhang said.

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