Ebola has broader risk implications
The spread of Ebola fever in West Africa has widespread implications for international business, affecting a wider range of people and activities than the numbers who are directly exposed to the disease. The risks include severe problems getting treatment for other heath needs, possible flight bans and border closures, and travel delays. The World Health Organization has warned of potential for civil unrest.
The current outbreak of Ebola is the largest ever, both geographically and case numbers, which are much higher than the reported figures. The worst affected countries are currently Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, although there have been isolated cases in Nigeria and Senegal. A second outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo involves a different strain of the virus in a remote area. In the main countries, the epidemic will almost certainly continue for some months. Dedicated facilities are overwhelmed, and there are equipment and staff shortages. Surveillance and suspicion are high.
Companies with travellers going to affected countries or who have business operations in West Africa need to know:
- What are we doing now for travellers or contractors coming from affected areas?
- How do we respond to an employee with any infectious disease coming into the workplace today?
- How do we reply to employee concerns?
- What do we do if an employee who has travelled to an affected area falls sick or a sick employee attends the workplace?
- When and how should we evacuate expatriate staff?
My company, which provides medical and travel security worldwide, advises business travellers to defer all non-essential travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and we recommend organisations with operations in these countries, to evacuate non-essential staff.
According to Dr Pawel Walecki, our Deputy Medical Director Assistance Operations, no non-African business travellers so far have been affected with Ebola, but those who suffer other illnesses, such as malaria, or who are injured, in a motor accident for example, may not get the treatment they need. It has also become more difficult and time consuming to arrange evacuation to European hospitals.
The early symptoms of Ebola, fever, nausea, headache and tiredness are similar to various other diseases, including malaria which is common in many of the areas affected by Ebola. The fear of Ebola is so strong that a malaria or flu victim could be quarantined or taken to an isolation hospital where they are more exposed and even left untreated. Accurate diagnosis requires specialised, repeated blood tests to detect the virus.
There is no specific treatment for Ebola; good general care does save some victims, as we have seen, but is unlikely to be available in the poorest countries. Named after a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) where the disease was first recognised in 1976, Ebola virus disease is endemic to Central and now West Africa. It is thought to be spread by fruit bats, possibly its natural reservoir, and can infect other wild animals, such as monkeys, which are able to transmit the disease to humans.
People get infected through direct unprotected contact with the animals. They are not infectious unless they have symptoms, but once they do have symptoms, their body fluids are highly infectious. Healthcare workers and people in direct contact with sick people (such as family members) are at highest risk of infection. Travellers or employees who avoid high risk activities and pay strict attention to hygiene are very unlikely to become ill. At the same time, they should monitor the situation and know what to do if they fall sick.
For all organisations, however, the outbreak of Ebola fever should be a reminder to:
- Review crisis plans;
- Refresh your pandemic and/or emergency plan;
- Assess your organisation’s medical risks;
- Communicate with your employees.
Deadly diseases and severe injury, along with terrorist attacks, war and natural disasters, are among the most serious risks employees face overseas. Keeping our emergency risk management up to date helps reduce the impact of events outside our control on our employees, costs and business operations, and continuity.
Franck Baron is Chairman of the Pan-Asian Risk & Insurance Management Association (PARMIA) and Group General Manager Risk Management & Insurance for International SOS. He is a former FERMA vice president.
FERMA board member Carl Leeman, Chief Risk Officer, Katoen Natie, comments, “We should not minimise the risk of Ebola, but neither should we panic. My company has interests in neighbouring countries, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana. The borders to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are closed and you cannot fly there. Of course, we are monitoring the situation. Until now there do not appear to be any economic repercussions on businesses or countries where we are active, nor do we see any panic or unrest with our employees. They are well informed and know what to do and not to do.”