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Preparing for Ebola: A Review of the Outbreak, its Economic Impact, and Business Continuity Considerations

By Matt Donahue | Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

This year’s outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the worst that has ever been recorded. The disease typically occurs in outbreaks in tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the short span of a year, the virus, which is affecting Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, has resulted in nearly 3,500 deaths.

In this article, we will look at where this outbreak started and the economic impact it has had both in Africa and internationally. We will also highlight the issues that businesses need to consider as this epidemic continues to expand.

Where Did Ebola Come From?

A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that Ebola’s Patient Zero (the initial patient of an epidemic) was most likely a 2 year-old boy living in southern Guinea. Unfortunately, the boy became very ill and died on December 6th 2013. Several close relatives died shortly thereafter. After the funerals, some of the attendants became ill. Following established patterns of close contact with the sick, the disease began spreading to other villages, then across the borders into Liberia and Sierra Leone. It wasn’t until March 2014 that the international aid agency MSF (Doctors Without Borders) became aware of the new Ebola outbreak and immediately got involved. In early August, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared “an international public health emergency”. On September 30th, the first case of Ebola was diagnosed within the United States.

At this time, the CDC is making both “best-case scenario” and “worst-case scenario” predictions of the total number of cases expected through January 1st 2015. Unfortunately, the predictions range from 11,000 to well over 1 million cases.Impact of Ebola on African Economies

Ebola’s Impact on Local Economies

Before the recent Ebola outbreak, all three of the impacted West African countries had been in the midst of an economic revival of sorts. Two were returning to economic levels not seen since before pre-civil war times. Since the Ebola outbreak occurred, downward financial trends have developed in all three of the affected nations.

At this time, many of the affected nations have closed borders and quarantined communities with outbreaks. Closed borders not only stop travel but also make the trade and transport of goods difficult, if not impossible. Essential goods are becoming both scarce and expensive. 

International businesses are also pulling out personnel and are hesitant to make investments. Major airlines have also implemented bans on the nations rampant with Ebola, affecting tourism and business-related travel as well as the supply chain and some needed resources. 
An interesting analysis of the economic impact of Ebola conducted by the World Bank suggests that the “largest economic effects of the crisis are not as a result of the direct costs (mortality, morbidity, caregiving, and the associated losses to working days) but rather those resulting from aversion behavior driven by fear of contagion.” The World Bank goes on to predict that if the epidemic spreads to neighboring countries the economic impact could be as much as $32 billion.

Is There a Chance of Ebola Spreading to the U.S. and Other International Destinations?

The short answer is yes. There is always a small chance that someone not showing any symptoms could board an international flight or travel internationally; however, when the individual begins going through the tell-tale signs and symptoms including fever, vomiting, etc., they will seek out or be sent for medical help. When this happens, healthcare professionals should be able to identify and treat them with elevated precautions and isolations.

Unfortunately, precautions are not always 100% effective, as evidenced by a Liberian man flying into Dallas, TX recently and later testing positive for (and succumbing to) Ebola.  

In wake of this story, many international airports, healthcare facilities, and hospitals throughout the world are on high alert and stepping up precautions to ensure proper screening and safety. Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced travelers flying to the U.S. from the affected countries are required to fly into one of five U.S. airports equipped with CDC screenings.

How should businesses prepare for a potential Ebola outbreak?

During large scale outbreaks, much like the current wave of Ebola, businesses can take steps to ensure their business operations continue, while also making employee safety a priority. There are some precautionary steps an organization can take to prepare itself, its employees, and its continuity practices in case this outbreak travels to a major financial market area.

  • Review pandemic plans and identify vulnerabilities. Take some time and review and discuss the plan or plans to see if any anything needs to be updated, discussed, or corrected in the unlikely scenario that an outbreak happens within your business region. Identify any employees who may be traveling or living near an area affected by the outbreak. Make sure the employee is aware of situation and what steps he/she can take to avoid exposures. If not already identified, consider relocation/teleworking options that can be provided to enhance the continuity process.

  • Communicate to employees. Let’s face it. At this point every office, jobsite, and business has had some kind of break room discussion about the current Ebola outbreak. Whether it was a serious discussion or just topical water cooler catch up, it is on the minds of your employees. It is never a bad idea to open the lines of communication and listen to questions or concerns they might have and take the opportunity to disseminate continuity information or factsheets.

  • Ensure employees are educated on proper hygiene practices. This may seem unnecessary, but most people are unaware of how susceptible they are every moment of every day to all kinds of germs and illnesses. Reviewing proper hygiene practices will help break bad habits that can increase risks. 

In Conclusion

Take some time to review and reflect about the current situation and determine what steps your firm can take to prepare your organization and employees for the potential threats that are growing and spreading around the world.

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