National conference to help business gird for pandemic flu

Jan 24, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Decision makers in commerce and industry can explore how to plan effectively for an influenza pandemic at the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy's (CIDRAP's) second national conference on business preparedness, to be held Feb 5 and 6 in Orlando, Fla.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will deliver the summit's keynote speech on the significance of globalization and politics in responding to pandemic flu. Others on a long list of speakers include Margaret Chan, MD, the new director-general of the World Health Organization (via video); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH; CIDRAP Director Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH; John Barry, author of The Great Influenza; Rajeev Venkayya, MD, senior director for biodefense with the White House Homeland Security Council; risk communication consultant Peter Sandman, PhD; and Tara O'Toole, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Scientists suspect that the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has a 60% mortality rate in humans, could trigger the next human pandemic. The virus has already infected millions of birds globally; of 269 people infected to date, 163 have died.

Osterholm said in a press release that the summit is an opportunity to review progress—or lack thereof—in preparedness planning during the past year in the private and public sectors.

"Attendees will also delve into the specific tools necessary for the particular preparedness responsibilities within their organizations," he said.

Presentations and breakout sessions with experts from various fields including economics, law, government, media, and healthcare will focus on how to assess risks and implement practical solutions. Participants have the opportunity to learn the scientific facts behind pandemic flu and the economic, legal, and security implications of a pandemic, as well as hear what others are doing to prepare and how they can make their own plans more efficient. Other sessions will highlight historical perspectives, how to deal with apathy, communication strategies for different constituents, and factors to be considered in information technology and supply chains.

The 2006 summit in Minneapolis, the first of its kind on a national scale, drew more than 200 organizations.

Jeanne Denz, director of global benefits for General Mills Corp., who attended the last summit, said business preparedness today is somewhat better than it was a year ago. "I do, however, find that there are many organizations that are experiencing 'pandemic fatigue,' and the pace of activity has been much slower this past 12 months," she told CIDRAP News.

Denz will moderate a panel on human resources and pandemic preparedness at the summit. She said the conference allows business experts to learn about current thinking on the role that government and municipalities will play in a pandemic.

"It is also an opportunity to share best practices on both processes and decisions that have been made, as well as ideas on how to create traction in the business community," Denz said.

Jeff Levi, director of Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit public health advocacy group, emphasized the need to understand the mutual expectations that government and business have of each other in a pandemic. Levi will moderate a panel on perspectives of the role of business and government in preparedness planning.

Businesses are taking action in pandemic influenza preparedness, Levi told CIDRAP News. "There's certainly been a lot more attention paid," he said. "What the depth of the planning is is still questionable."

However, he noted that it is mostly large businesses that are making plans, while smaller businesses lag behind and require resources to help them move forward. "Large corporations have the wherewithal to do this," he said. "It's the small, midsize corporations that need more help . . . to be as well prepared."

Other panel sessions will explore what business and the media should expect of each other during a pandemic and what businesses should know about vaccines, antivirals, respirators, and masks.

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