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Because winter in the Southern Hemisphere comes when it’s summer in the northern half of the globe, countries south of the equator begin their flu seasons a few months after the season winds down in the United States. For organizations with properties around the world, that fact of geography took on a new significance this year.
Not long after most people in the United States had breathed a sigh of relief that the number of cases of H1N1 had tapered off, Jim Rosenbluth, managing director of crisis management for Cushman & Wakefield, started looking south. Because Cushman & Wakefield is a global firm with properties in the both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, Rosenbluth had to be alert to the risk that the H1N1 flu might become more transmissible or more lethal than it was in the United States.
So far, at least, that hasn’t been the case. “We’re seeing a replay of the experience we had in the spring here,” says Rosenbluth. “We’re seeing lots of cases but the cases don’t seem to be highly virulent. It really seems to be pretty much in line with a typical seasonal flu outbreak.”
One of the difficulties of preparing for any flu is that viruses mutate constantly. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified more than 1,000 strains of H1N1, says Rosenbluth. So far, those mutations haven’t produced a strain that is more contagious and more deadly than the strains that affected the United States this spring.
That’s not to say that H1N1 mutations haven’t raised any concerns. WHO has reported that one strain is resistant to Tamiflu, one of two anti-viral drugs that CDC considered effective against H1N1. But that strain of H1N1 is not easily transmissible. In none of the three cases of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 did the disease spread to “close contacts” of the patients. Nor did the three patients develop severe illnesses, according to WHO. WHO calls the three cases “sporadic,” and says “at this time, there is no evidence to indicate the development of widespread antiviral resistance among pandemic H1N1 viruses.” The Tamiflu-resistant strain of H1N1 can still be treated by another antiviral, zanamivir, known by the trade name Relenza, says WHO.
Earlier this summer, WHO officially declared H1N1 to be a pandemic. In technical terms, WHO moved H1N1 up to a Phase 6 pandemic, which indicates that the virus is widespread in at least three countries in two different parts of the world.
Like other organizations that had already implemented response plans, Cushman & Wakefield didn’t do anything new specifically in response to the WHO declaration, says Rosenbluth. “Our triggers were pandemic levels 4 and 5,” he says. As a result, the firm had already taken such steps as banning travel to Mexico, where the disease first appeared, issuing guidance on what to do if employees showed flu symptoms, authorizing the purchase of hand sanitizers and dispensing stations, and reviewing janitorial procedures.
“We had already put into place all of the mechanisms and policies that we felt were appropriate,” says Rosenbluth.
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