Despite intensive media coverage, many organizations are shying away from preparing for a potential avian flu pandemic. A Mercer Human Resource Consulting survey of companies this spring found that only 7 percent of U.S. respondents had a budget for flu preparedness, and just 38 percent have formed crisis-management teams. But other organizations are preparing for a potential disaster that, according to a White House report, could result in 1.9 million deaths and keep 40 percent of the work force at home.

Microbix Biosystems Inc. of Toronto, like other companies based there, experienced firsthand the disruption a possible pandemic can have on business operations during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. Microbix has been tracking the avian flu since it was first identified in 1997. According to general manager Phil Casselli, Microbix began considering a corporate preparedness plan in 2004, “put some teeth into it during 2005,” and published it in skeletal form on its Web site for in late 2005.

The potential for an outbreak also is changing where meetings are located. “Organizations are becoming more cautious about planning events in hot-spot countries, not because they see an immediate risk, but because it's easier not to have to explain the risks,” says Tim Daniel, CEO of International SOS, a Philadelphia-based provider of medical assistance and international health care to companies around the world.

For associations that depend on their annual meetings for a large source of their revenue, the threat of a pandemic is nerve-wracking. “We're shivering in our boots over the prospect of this happening and travel restrictions developing or people being afraid to travel,” says Nelson Fabian, executive director and chief executive officer of the National Environmental Health Association, Denver, which is developing a bird-flu crisis plan.

“If we lose our annual conference, we're in big trouble. I don't know how many associations could survive if they lost one or two annual conferences.” To offset that financial impact, NEHA has created an online university to “expand the delivery mechanism of being able to get education out to our people,” Fabian says. “With a fee to access the courses, it generates revenues for the association.” The first course on the avian flu is currently on the Web (www.neha.org). Fabian is also planning to tape sessions at his organization's annual conference and convert those to online courses.

Thanks to an incident-management plan that she helped develop shortly after 9/11, Laura Jelinek, associate executive director of continuing education, meetings and exhibitions, believes the Rosemont, Ill. — based American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons will be better able to respond to a pandemic. In meeting management today, “we have to take action quickly and move forward our business-continuity plans,” she says.

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