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Preparing for the Worst

July 1, 2006
by James Myers
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The real possibility that avian flu will hit the United States means all healthcare institutions need formal disaster recovery plans.

Consider this scenario: At least 40 percent of your IT staff has called in sick over the past two weeks. Another 15 percent of the employee body cannot return to work due to caring for other sick family members, closure of schools, or closure of daycare facilities. Outside the work place, key vendors, suppliers, shareholders and investors are feeling the same affect.

The first wave of the avian flu is here, and the government cannot give you a specific timetable when your affected employees can return to work. Is your primary technology department prepared to manage this type of business interruption event?

Avian flu (H5N1)

Flu pandemics are like hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes — they will happen. There have been 10 know flu pandemics over the past 300 years. There are several multi-billion dollar questions to be answered. When will the next pandemic occur, and how long will it last? Will it be the avian flu? What magnitude of the population will be affected, and what is the predicted mortality rate?

The last flu pandemic in recent history was the Spanish flu (H1N1) of 1918. Think of the avian flu as the "kissing cousin" to the Spanish flu. A major difference is the lethality of H5N1 — meaning if a human contracts the virus, there is a 55 percent chance of death. The avian flu is caused by the most powerful influenza virus seen in modern human history. The good news to date is the virus has been restricted to birds and has not yet mutated itself for transfer between humans.

So far, those who have contracted the virus and died worked daily in close proximity to infected poultry. However, the avian flu virus is following the same path of mutation as seen in the Spanish flu strain of 1918. It's just a matter of time until the virus either mutates itself enough to support human-to-human transmission, or recombines its DNA with a human flu virus, enabling it to pass easily from person to person. Will the virus be as strong and lethal with a human-to-human transfer as it is within existing birds? No one really knows.

Is your disaster recovery plan ready?

First and foremost, technologists and technology managers must assume that at least 40 percent of their workforce will be unavailable for between six to eight weeks. Couple this with a shortage of vendor resources that are leveraged during hardware (HW) and software (SW) upgrades, system change outs, and infrastructure moves, and you have an operating environment filled with vulnerabilities. To effectively manage system downtime and decrease financial exposure, the primary technology department within the enterprise must have a disaster recovery plan (DRP) that supports ongoing operations during and after an avian flu pandemic. The disaster recovery strategy should plan for a worse-case scenario while preparing with training and exercises that minimize system downtime and ultimately decrease financial loss. Following is a non-inclusive list of action items the primary technology department should prepare for.

James Myers

Just-in-Time Resources

Every IT department must take a global view when planning and preparing for a flu outbreak. The mindset that, "It doesn't happen here," no longer applies as with tornado or hurricane-specific geographics. Our global "just-in-time" economy will see a shut down. Consider this, approximately 80 percent of all drugs used in this country — as well as the raw materials — come from offshore. If the rest of the world experiences a pandemic, the U.S. business economy will be brought to its knees. From a macro perspective, according to a Congressional Budget Office report, a widespread outbreak in the United States could kill as many as 2 million people and cost the overall economy $675 billion annually, while trimming economic growth by 5 percent.

Without trains, planes and trucks, the expectation that upgraded or newly purchased HW and/or SW systems will be received on time is wishful thinking. Also, the offshore supply chain that supports the individual HW or SW components for servers, desktop computers, mainframes, switches, routers, printers, etc., will be negatively impacted.

Assuming some key U.S. ports are under quarantine, many businesses technology purchases will be sitting idle at foreign ports awaiting shipment. The "IT economy" runs on a highly vulnerable just-in-time business model across all key verticals. The avian flu virus will not discriminate and will have a definitive negative affect on the technology supply chain as a whole.

Post Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put out a call to anyone who had a refrigerated truck that could be placed in strategic locations to help with storage of as many as 10,000 bodies. A contingent of refrigerated trucks answered the call, and within 72 hours all major food manufacturers throughout the country reported a significant inability to ship their goods. Get prepared, be proactive and invest in a formalized DRP.

Author Information:

James Myers

James Myers is the president and CEO of Contingency Now Inc., a professional risk-management consulting company in Overland Park, Kan.