IN A BULLETIN ISSUED by The World Health Organization May 1, a possible avian flu pandemic was called “unpredictable but potentially catastrophic,” capable of killing millions of people around the world.

Outbreaks of influenza H5N1 have occurred among poultry in countries in Asia, while there have been human cases in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the spread of the virus from person to person has been rare.

“However,” the CDC reports, “because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus could one day be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another.”

A scenario like this would have tragic human consequences, as well as a profound economic impact. Travel would be disrupted, a major blow to a sector such as the meeting industry. As president of Ottawa, Ontario-based Infolink: The Conference Publishers, Mitchell Beer was able to observe the effects of SARS on Toronto — and Canadian tourism — in 2003. “The outbreak was very isolated, yet we heard about people internationally canceling plans to go to Prince Edward Island because of an outbreak in Toronto,” Beer says. “It really underscores the interest an industry like ours has in knowing prevention plans [are prepared].”

The Asian outbreak has been limited to rural areas, and there has been no indication that meeting planners are looking to pull the plug on meetings there anytime soon.

Joan Eisenstodt, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates and moderator of the MIMList, the Meetings Industry Mall listserv, recently tried to get a conversation going on the subject of the avian flu and didn't get many takers. She wonders if the threat is still too remote to have planners thinking about its potential impact. “What I'd like to see,” Eisenstodt says, “Is that any issue, whether condo conversion of hotel rooms, or bird flu, or tsunamis, is viewed as part of the big picture — connecting the dots and looking at the ‘what ifs.’”

“If a planner is taking a major meeting off site,” Beer says, “that planner should know the questions to ask to make sure, for example, that the audiovisual equipment is set up properly and ready to roll.” The same applies to something such as a possible pandemic, he believes. “We have an interest as an industry, and as individuals, to make sure that something like a pandemic flu is being planned for before it's too late.”

Spurred by the 2003 SARS outbreak, Toronto officials are preparing for a possible avian flu pandemic. In a report to the Toronto Board of Health in May, health officials estimated a pandemic could result in up to 5,000 deaths in Toronto alone, and sicken close to 1 million residents. For its part, the CDC is increasing its influenza surveillance capabilities in Asia, working on antiviral stockpile issues, and coordinating with state agencies to help with planning efforts.