Businesses have been urged to prepare for a potential outbreak of bird flu by reviewing and updating their crisis management and continuity plans before it is too late.
IT analysts Gartner also advised organisations to ensure that their organisations plan from the boardroom down through basic operations for a possible pandemic whose course and consequences could potentially prove to be catastrophic.
"Business continuity and IT leaders are ideally placed to plan for avian flu's threats," said Steve Bittenger, research director at Gartner.
"Organisations rely on IT to keep the business running, and they can leverage IT to ensure their business operations continue if travel and transportation restrictions, quarantines or problems with vendors or employees because of illness or fear occur."
According to the World Health Organisation, if an avian flu pandemic breaks out, the scale of infection might be considerably greater than it was with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which infected 8,096 people and killed 774 in 2003.
"Organisations must include the possibility of an avian flu pandemic in their business continuity planning and crisis management preparations to ensure they can react quickly and effectively" said Roberta Witty, research vice president at Gartner.
"But this is not business continuity planning as usual. It requires a re-think of some of the most basic business processes. Use scenario planning to assess possible business impact, and as the basis for developing appropriate contingency plans for different situations."
A pandemic would not affect IT systems directly, but it could cause considerable economic disruption through its impact on the workforce and on business activity, Gartner says.
The 2003 SARS outbreak suggests that a pandemic would effect international and local travel, supply chains, health systems, personnel and schools. It would also have direct economic impact on most industries, but particularly travel, tourism and hospitality.
Gartner also warns that any pandemic could have a massive effect on workforces, with absence rates of 30 per cent or more lasting for a period of weeks and months, not days.
"We advise these leaders to use experiences from SARS to plan for a potential avian flu outbreak to ensure business continuity," said Dion Wiggins, research vice president at Gartner.
"If a pandemic occurs, the spread may be rapid, affecting many industries, economies and regions worldwide - directly and indirectly. This will leave little or no time to prepare contingency plans."
- Work with your public health department - demand a plan.
- Make your workforce aware of the avian flu threat and the steps your organisation is taking to prepare for it.
- Assess how your business would deal with 30 per cent absence rates for a sustained period of time and try to improve it.
- Assign someone to track biological threats such as the avian flu. This person should regularly review business continuity plans and update them in response to new information.
- Establish or expand policies and tools that enable employees to work from home with broadband access, appropriate security and network access to applications. Plan for absenteeism rates of 25 to 30 per cent.
- Expand online transaction and self-service options for customers and partners.
- Work with customers and partners to minimize any disruption by developing coordinated crisis response capabilities.
- Re-think your approach to just-in-time inventories. If transport systems are disrupted, it could impact the delivery of raw materials.