Despite all the warnings about the potentially devastating effects of a global avian flu pandemic, only half of the world's major multinationals have yet to put in place - or even start to think about - contingency plans.
A new survey of 90 multinational companies by consultants Watson Wyatt Worldwide has revealed marked regional variations in attitudes towards a possible flu pandemic, with three-quarters of firms operating in Asia-Pacific saying they are greatly or moderately worried about it compared with only a third of those in the United States.
With the impact of the SARS virus of 2003 still fresh in their minds, more than half (52 per cent) of companies in Asia-Pacific are considering putting programs in place to deal with the avian flu and a third have already made plans.
Forty eight per cent of companies operating in the United States are considering such plans, as are 47 per cent in Europe, 44 per cent in Latin America and 42 per cent in Canada.
But only 15 per cent have plans in place in the United States, 11 per cent in Europe, 10 per cent in Canada and 9 per cent in Latin America.
That still leaves some one in five companies that claim they are not at all concerned about the avian flu.
Yet as disaster planning by global banking giant HSBC - world's third largest bank - has estimated, as many as fifty per cent of the workforce could be put out of action by a flu pandemic
Head of crisis management at HSBC, Bob Pigg, said that "(Bird flu) is probably the single biggest challenge for the whole group. None of us knows the virulence of the virus, but I would rather be prepared for the worst."
HSBC's estimates were made up of the proportion of staff expected to be sick with flu, those with secondary infections, others caring for other family members and those avoiding the office to escape infection.
While focusing on Asia is a logical response to news of flu cases there, employers need to make sure they are considering the possible impact the avian flu could have on all regions," said Robert Wesselkamper, director of international consulting at Watson Wyatt.
"It pays to be proactive when dealing with a virus that could have such a big impact on the workforce."
Companies also said they were far more worried about an avian flu outbreak in Asia than in other regions. A strong majority (74 per cent) said they were concerned to a great or moderate extent about the impact the flu would have on their workforce in Asia-Pacific, compared with 45 per cent in Europe, 38 per cent in Canada, 36 per cent in Latin America and 34 per cent in the United States.
"A good first step for companies is to note what worked and what didn't in their planned responses to past threats such as SARS," Wesselkamper said.
"Companies should also make sure to communicate their formal plans to manage through any business interruption — including alternative work arrangements and reimbursement for preventive and onset treatment — to the entire workforce, particularly associates responsible for deployment."