THE current worldwide alert for an avian influenza pandemic has an economic perspective, as well as a health view, says a World Bank official.
In particular, the disease could have a significant economic impact on developing countries, said Milan Brahmbhatt, a senior economist with the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific region.
"The outcome of a global bird flu shock could lead to a downturn in world trade more severe than during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) shock," which was concentrated in East Asia, Brahmbhatt said.
The economist hosted a live World Bank Internet discussion on avian influenza -- or bird flu -- early this month.
The World Bank (WB) is making available $500 million in loans and grants to help countries prepare for the possibility that their animal or human populations become affected by a spread of bird flu. The bank also is coordinating with other aid donors to prepare for a potential wide-scale spread of bird flu, Brahmbhatt said.
Country-level responses to the bird flu threat need to be closely coordinated across sectors, including ministries of agriculture, health, finance and with local governments, under strong leadership at the highest level, the official said.
At the country level, Brahmbhatt said, some governments in East Asia already have realised that policies leading to the compensation of farmers to cull or destroy infected bird flocks is necessary for containing the disease.
But, he said, countries also are realising that paying farmers too much to kill their poultry may be considered an incentive to deliberately infect flocks.
The immediate major economic effect of a bird flu epidemic on countries could be a downturn in demand for travel, as people become wary of the potential transmission of flu from birds to humans.
The World Bank has undertaken a detailed study of potential economic impacts of a bird flu pandemic on various economies, in particular, those that rely on tourism and trade, Brahmbhatt said.
The economist said companies should look ahead and secure adequate financing to survive a severe reduction in demand for their products or services for a period of up to two years.
Brahmbhatt also said companies should identify alternative suppliers and ways of doing business, for example, by using technologies that would allow telecommuting and video conferencing.
Companies also need to plan to minimise the effects of a potential flu epidemic on their labour forces, such as by developing clear policies requiring infected workers to stay home and ensuring sanitary work environments.
Governments also need to reform bankruptcy policies that would facilitate corporate restructuring and the re-launching of companies quickly after an epidemic, should one occur, he said.
Brahmbhatt said global public-private efforts are needed to develop and produce enough vaccine to prevent a spread of highly pathogenic bird flu among humans and animals.
An epidemic is a situation where new cases of a human disease occur more rapidly than what would be normally expected. A pandemic is an epidemic affecting a large geographic region.
To date, 133 cases of highly pathogenic bird flu in humans have been identified, Brahmbhatt said.
If the bird flu situation is not contained, economic losses could top $800 billion, according to the World Bank. (By courtesy: The Washington File -- a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, US Department of State)