No need for IT shops to panic over swine flu

Take precautions, but don't over-react, says Frank Hayes

Fed up with swine flu fearmongers? Feeling suspicious that the people whose bird-flu pandemic predictions didn't pan out, are now trying for a second bite at the apple? You should be. Yes, the current swine flu outbreak is a real health problem. In some places, it's also a real economic problem.

But a real problem for IT shops? It's time for a reality check.

First, the health problem: The World Health Organisation and the US Centre for Disease Control are concerned about this new strain of flu. They should be. Flu kills people usually from complications such as pneumonia, usually the elderly or infants or others especially at risk. But all flu strains pose a health threat.

Flu is dangerous. That's why the WHO and the CDC are making all those statements, and why governments are telling their citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico, where the disease first emerged. This new strain of flu isn't killing its victims wholesale (in contrast, bird flu has killed 60% of those who got it from birds), or even sending them to hospitals in huge numbers. Mostly it appears to be just a bad case of the flu.

That's the first difference from the much-hyped bird flu. Here's the second: This strain of swine flu can be treated effectively with standard influenza drugs, including Tamiflu and Relenza.

In the US, there are federal government stockpiles of at least 50 million doses of these drugs. That's about half a million doses for each currently confirmed US case of swine flu. And we can make more.

Yes, we need to be alert. But even if there are more outbreaks globally, this swine flu can be contained with reasonable precautions (wash your hands frequently, send sick employees home), existing medicines and slightly increased travel controls.

What about Mexico, with its thousands sick and hundreds dead from swine flu? It turns out many early reports lumped all respiratory deaths in Mexico City into the "might be swine flu" category. The number of confirmed cases, and the number of confirmed swine-flu deaths, is now believed to be much smaller.

What we know for sure from the situation in Mexico City is that the pandemic panic peddlers have their economics backward. In Mexico City, government orders have shut down restaurants, theatres and other places that pose a risk for spreading flu virus. That's hammering the local economy and idling workers.

The problem isn't that the flu is leaving businesses shorthanded, the way pandemic pundits predicted. Instead, shutdowns are leaving businesses unable to afford regular staffing levels.

So there's little likelihood that you'll need to lay in a supply of food, water, fuel and breathing masks. In practice, you'll be more likely to lay people off than to lock them in.

Where does that leave us in IT shops? In the middle. It's not a non-event swine flu really does pose a potential threat. But it's also not a business crisis we need to throw money at in the middle of a recession.

It's the hardest kind of problem for American businesses: one that requires active monitoring but not immediate, drastic action.

So ignore the fearmongers. Just be vigilant, keep your coughs and sneezes to yourself, and tell your staff to stay home if they're sick. That's not as exciting as pandemic panic just the swine flu's challenging reality.

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