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Europe ready for possible bird flu

Supermarkets, airports, banks and other businesses across Europe have begun preparing to cope with a possible full-scale outbreak of a human variety of bird flu.

Businesses, especially those that deal closely with the public, are planning activities ranging from having regular hand-washing breaks for employees to ordering protective face masks in an attempt to curb the potential economic effect of an outbreak.

Floridians, in particular, have reason to watch and learn from Europe's preparations. The Sunshine State, with its heavy influx of global tourists, is expected to be among the first to feel the effects if a bird flu outbreak reaches the United States.

"There are many companies who may not survive a pandemic, and planning needs to start now," said Guy Otty, managing director of London risk management company Business Forums International, which is receiving inquiries from thousands of companies.

The World Bank estimates that the cost of a global pandemic would be as much as $800-billion a year, knocking 2 percent off global gross domestic product, and that employee absenteeism could hit 25 to 50 percent.

"It would be quite the logistical problem worldwide," said Cathy West of British Airways, one of many businesses taking concrete steps as the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus spreads across Europe.

"Our goal would be to match passenger demand with staff availability," West said, adding that airline officials have gone through several scenarios to cope with passenger drop-offs.

The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, which spread rapidly via air travel, decimated Asia's tourism industry, cutting annual international arrivals by more than 15-million and costing the region $11-billion.

At London's Heathrow Airport, spokesman Damon Hunt said the focus is on increasing hygiene among employees and limiting contact with frequent "touch points," such as hand rails, that may help spread the disease.

Airport officials will encourage employees to regularly wash their hands, use alcohol wipes, avoid hand-to-mouth contact and carefully dispose of tissues. The airport has devised plans to cope with fewer staffers, including the possibility of using trained volunteers.

In France, one of seven EU nations to confirm an outbreak of H5N1, the leading business federation urged companies to begin preparing immediately.

Medef, which represents more than 750,000 businesses, has issued detailed recommendations that include ordering filtration masks for workers in close contact with the public, such as supermarket staffers, cashiers, receptionists and security guards.

The organization said businesses should consider taking measures to stop the spread of the flu, such as switching off air conditioning, and it recommended that during any pandemic workers not shake each others' hands.

French supermarket chain Auchan is planning to give workers breaks every three hours so they can wash their hands. Swiss supermarket group Migros is sending protection kits - including protective suits, masks and gloves - to 500 farm workers and about 100 employees who handle poultry products.

Billa, Austria's largest supermarket chain, said it has set up a task force on how to respond to a pandemic.

"With over 1,900 stores all over Austria, Billa has to decide which stores would have to stay open during a possible pandemic," spokeswoman Corinna Tinkler said.

"Of course, there are considerations on how we could protect our employees," she said, but she declined to give details.

British supermarkets Sainsbury's and Tesco said their contingency plans have been in place since last year, but they declined to elaborate.

Hungary last week became the seventh EU nation - along with France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy and Slovenia - to confirm an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. No EU nations have reported the bird flu in commercial stocks or in humans.

The EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, said the risks of an epidemic have not been factored into economic forecasts.

"Of course, there is a risk there, but so far we have not quantified this risk," he said.

Drug producer Schering of Berlin said it founded a task force in October to address the issue and has a plan in place that covers the company's 140 subsidiaries and more than 25,000 employees worldwide.

"It ranges from a crisis plan to a hygiene plan to business contingency plans," spokeswoman Denise Rennmann said. "The goal is to maintain the production of life-saving drugs and protect the employees as much as possible."

Austria's Erste Bank said it has enough of the antiviral drug Tamiflu in stock to supply all of its employees.

"Our employees in eastern Europe were already supplied with Tamiflu when the first cases of bird flu occurred last year," spokesman Michael Mauritz said.

However, other businesses cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis that may never come about.

Lego has not made special contingency plans, spokeswoman Charlotte Simonsen said.

"We are always prepared for a sort of crisis management, but we don't have anything specific for bird flu," she said. "Not that many have been affected or have died from it, so maybe we're taking it a little more coolly."