Blogs & Comment

As Ebola spreads, your company needs a pandemic preparedness plan: Elaine Chin

Wherever there is a public health crisis, economic crisis follows

A Liberian health worker dressed in a hazmat suit speaks with families in a classroom now used as Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014 in Monrovia,

A Liberian health worker speaks with families in a classroom now used as Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. (John Moore/Getty)

West Africa’s Ebola outbreak is nowhere close to being under control. In fact, it is extremely worrisome for me—as a physician, business owner, traveller and mother. And you should be worried too. “The number of new patients is moving far faster than the capacity to manage them,” the World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan announced on Friday.

As the death toll rose to more than 2,400 people out of 4,784 cases over the past six months, Dr. Chan stated that, “We are very cognizant of the fact that any number of cases and deaths that we are reporting is an underestimate.”

The Ebola infection rate and death toll have been particularly high among health workers, who are exposed to hundreds of highly infectious patients who can pass the virus on through body fluids such as blood and excrement. Almost 50% of the 300 healthcare workers who have developed the disease have died.

I believe it will only be a matter of time before the virus lands in Europe and soon, across the ocean. On Earth, we have become global travellers. While we feel safer knowing that Ebola is not highly contagious, I wonder what would happen if the virus mutates and becomes airborne? This is the precise scenario Dr. Michael Osterholm describes in the New York Times.

While the human death toll is staggering itself, we know that wherever there is a public health crisis, economic crisis follows. For those of us unfortunate enough to have lived in Toronto when SARS crisis hit, we know. The city was in panic, paralyzed. West Africa is also under siege.

MORE: Infectious Diseases: Are We Ready? »

If the Ebola virus takes hold in a  city in Europe or North America, it could quickly become a serious public health and economic issue. People’s behaviour will change immediately—from how they decide to seek medical attention for non-viral conditions (serious health issues may get overlooked) to how people move around within their own city, reducing spending in retail stores and restaurants.

There is presently no specific treatment or vaccine available for Ebola. Standard treatment is limited to supportive therapy. We are at the mercy of Mother Nature until we find a drug and vaccine to combat this virus.

Hospitals have already refreshed their readiness plan should a person land in their Emergency Department with a possible infection to Ebola. It’s now time for your company to update—or create—a Pandemic Preparedness Policy for your workplace.

The responsibility of the senior management team is to:

  1. Create a Pandemic Preparedness Team
  2. Develop a Pandemic Preparedness Plan
  3. Develop a Business Preparedness and Continuity Plan

Critical to the development of the necessary plans is to create the Pandemic Preparedness Team.  Their responsibility is to:

  1. Evaluate the status of preparedness of the organization for a pandemic
  2. Create a Plan of Action
  3. Develop and respond accordingly to the Pandemic Level

It’s time to evaluate your travel plans too. Avoid unnecessary travel to Africa until the situation stabilizes. If your organization has business in Africa, monitor the situation closely. You must have a plan for your employees in the region, from health care to financial support.

While we watch the medical developments in West Africa, it’s time for you to keep an eye on your own business and home front.

Quick Facts about the Ebola virus:

What is it?

The Ebola virus is a severe, often fatal, illness that affects us as well as other primates. The origin of the virus is unknown, but based on available evidence fruit bats are considered the likely host of the virus. It is introduced into humans through close contact with the bodily fluids of infected animals. Person-to-person infection can occur through direct contact with an ill person’s blood or other bodily fluids.

Ebola infection can only be diagnosed with a  laboratory test.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

Early symptoms of an Ebola infection can be non-specific, making it difficult to diagnose which can include red eyes and rash. Others then present with fever, headache, muscle aches and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain and difficulty breathing and later kidney and liver failure. In some cases, internal and external bleeding can occur which can prove deadly. Symptoms can appear from 2-21 days after exposure to the virus.

What can I do to protect myself?

Risk from direct contact with an infected person’s body fluids is very low. The virus can also be spread through objects, such as needles, that have been contaminated with infected fluids. Practicing good habits like washing your hands regularly and using alcohol hand sanitization are good ideas.

Anyone who has stayed in areas where cases were recently reported should be aware of the symptoms of infection and seek medical attention at the first sign of illness.

Elaine Chin, MD, MBA

Founder, Executive Health Centre