Magazine article Risk Management

The Dynamics of SARS

Magazine article Risk Management

The Dynamics of SARS

Article excerpt

Plotting the Risk of Epidemic Disasters

In 2003, SARS (severe acule respiratory syndrome) seemed to come oui of nowhere. The number of people infected increased at an alarming rate and many died. In the beginning the disease only took hold in Hong Kong, but it then quickly spread to Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan. It was only then that China admitted that it had had a SARS problem for almost six months. While there were only a few cases in the Uniled States, Toronto became an unexpected hot spot.

Although Hong Kong was one of the hardest hit by SARS, in the end, only a small percentage of the population was infected. The collateral impact, however, was farreaching. Travel to affected areas was virtually halted, offices were closed for weeks after a single SARS diagnosis and many organizations were forced to divide their staff into cross-functional groups that could be moved to other locations to avoid the entire business being quarantined in the case ol a single exposure.

In Hong Kong and Toronto, the financial fallout was considerable. Both cities' tourism industries were driven to their knees, business interruptions affected nearly all commerce, and local medical !acuities were hard-pressed to function under such trying conditions.

After months of uncertainty, public health officials worldwide instituted procedures that quickly brought the epidemic under control. By the end of the summer ol 2003, SARS looked less dangerous than the annual influenza bug, although new cases reported in January 2004 in China may test that theory. Regardless, the financial impact of SARS suggests that a major epidemic, even one that causes relatively few deaths, can be as costly a catastrophe as any hurricane, tornado or flood.

Risk managers need to realize that the recent SARS scenario will likely be repeated in the coming years. Medical history over the last 500 years tells us that there has been a major influenza-type epidemic about once every century. Considering that the last major epidemic occurred in 1918, history says that a new one can happen at any time.

The possibility of a repeat of the influenza pandemic of 1918 is something that keeps epidemiologists awake at night. In that year, 25 percent to 40 percent of the world populations exposed to the virus actually contracted influenza. While that figure is high, it is not monumental compared to some receni years. Whai was disastrously dillereni in 1918, however, was the mortality rale. Normally, influenza is fatal in only about 0.1 percent of those who contract the disease, and usually the health ol those victims is already compromised. In 1918, the death rate from the flu was 2.5 percent, 25 times higher than usual. These deaths were especially heavy in the 25 to 50 yearold age range. Worldwide, 50 million people were killed by the flu that year.

One might be tempted to shrug off the 1918 epidemic as ancient history because so much has changed since then, especially the development of antibiotics, advanced medical procedures, global communications and muchimproved epidemiology. But every lime there is a scare like SARS, scientists worry that it might be the next big outbreak. Diseases can be both unpredictable and difficult to contain. And as they mutate, they can render traditional treatments ineffective. Moreover, certain environments-such as Southeast Asia, with its high interaction between humans and animals-are optimal breeding grounds for the next superbug. And the increasing regularity of international travel makes it easy for a regional outbreak to quickly become a global one. In this regard, SARS is very much a sign of things to come.

As a result, risk managers need to take a serious look at epidemics when considering disaster scenarios. There are many ways that the impact of an epidemic can play out. The real worry is that a contagious disease will not be controlled as quickly as SARS, and we may face the horror of 1918 all over again. …

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