Bush detailing the government's
plans Tuesday to combat the
threat from bird flu.
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Bob Goldberg flies more than 150,000 miles
a year on business, but his flight from Chicago to Singapore this Friday
has him more nervous than most. The reason -- the threat of bird flu.
"Did it prompt me not to go? No, but it did raise a concern," said
Goldberg, an international lawyer who is attending a meeting about a
business venture there. "The meeting was originally set for Vietnam, and
it was moved because they've had the outbreak there. If it hadn't been
moved, I don't think I would have gone. And even though there hasn't
been an outbreak in Singapore, we've had discussions about overseas
The threat of a pandemic bird flu at this point is mostly
hypothetical, but serious enough for President Bush to detail
government preparations and propose a $7.1 billion plan to combat a
And government agencies are not the only ones preparing for the
threat of a disease that has the potential to kill millions around the
globe and cripple commerce. Businesses are preparing for the worst case
scenario, and the already-troubled airline industry is bracing in case
fear of infection causes a sharp drop in travel demand.
The outbreak of SARS over nine months in 2003 is estimated to have
cost the travel industry about $8 billion worldwide, even though that
disease never reached pandemic status.
"Basically, travel to these affected regions, whether Toronto or
Asia, came to a very quick halt," said Greeley Koch, president of the
Association of Corporate Travel Executives. "At this point we have not
seen anybody cut back in travel (due to risk of bird flu). But they want
to be prepared, want to learn more."
Koch said a survey of his group's U.S. members found 26 percent have
formed some kind of contingency plan to deal with a pandemic flu, and
another 19 percent are looking into it. The group wants all its members
to incorporate the threat from a pandemic into their disaster
preparedness plans, and it has formed an Airborne Contagion Containment
Task Force to help corporate travel managers prepare for the worst.
The Centers for Disease Control has set up quarantine stations at 11
major international airports, and it plans to have six more open soon.
The stations are where passengers on incoming flights will be taken for
evaluation, not for long-term treatment.
"The airlines are part of the overall surveillance network. We have a
history of working with CDC to identify passengers who might be ill,"
said Katherine Andrus, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport
Association, the U.S. airline industry trade group.
|A colorized transmission electron
micrograph of bird flu H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) are grown in
MDCK cells (seen in green) as seen in this undated photograph
from the the Centers for Disease Control.
Andrus said during the outbreak of SARS, more than 1,000 flights to
the United States were met by CDC or local public health officials,
although only a limited number of passengers suffering from SARS were
found to be on the planes.
Bird flu has so far not been shown to pose a threat of
person-to-person transmission like SARS, but it has proved to be far
more lethal to those stricken with the disease, primarily in Asia.
Andrus said modern jets filter air through hospital-quality filters
and exchange air in the plane more frequently than does a typical office
building. But she says airlines are concerned not only about the threat
of pandemic bird flu, but also a hit to air travel due to public fears
about the disease.
"We realize there is a possible impact (on airlines) if public fears
affect travel behavior," she said. "Right now we haven't seen that.
There have been no recommendations to curtail travel. We're relying on
authoritative sources like the CDC so the public can understand the risk
or the absence of a risk."
But assurances will do little to maintain air travel, even among
hard-to-scare business travelers, if there are reports of deaths of
passengers, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel
Coalition, a trade group for business travelers.
"It's a little early to see the impact now. Companies are now just
beginning to form committees. But there is a tension in a lot of
companies," said Mitchell. "Until the headline reads 'Human-to-Human
Transmission,' there's no reason to trigger those changes in travel
policy. But if that happens, we could end up with a lot fewer airlines
globally. I think as we see images of airport quarantine rooms, people
will get message that flying isn't a good idea."
Goldberg said some of his clients and business associates are making
plans to use video conferencing or other alternatives to travel in case
of an outbreak. He said he's personally more nervous flying now than he
was immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
"Sept. 11 was an aberration, four planes out of thousands of planes,"
he said. "This is something you can contract from someone else on the
plane and you don't know what the ramifications are going to be."
Still he's not sure that staying home will be a better option for him
or other business travelers if there is an outbreak.
"Who knows where we're safe," he said.
For more news on the push for a bird flu vaccine,