Chris Morton, Pinkerton’s Director based in Colorado, was in Nigeria when he got the news. “The government had just issued an Ebola warning. Twelve cases had been discovered in a short period of time. It was now apparent that this was not an isolated situation. It was now a risk to everyone.” That is the new reality for international companies: epidemic diseases. While historically threats of contracting illnesses like malaria, dysentery, and cholera have put many people on guard when traveling internationally, those diseases have been concentrated in certain areas and became easier, over time, to avoid. 

In the past decade or two, however, diseases have become far more widespread and, perhaps more concerning, they have spread far faster, reaching near pandemic (worldwide) status. Being aware of where diseases are currently spreading and, knowing how to prevent employees who work in or are traveling to those affected areas from contracting diseases can mitigate the risks greatly. It can also help you anticipate the issues that could arise should an employee be “caught” in country, like Morton was, when an outbreak occurs.

Increased Awareness of Diseases

The internet has made information far more accessible globally. That is certainly true regarding international health risks. In 2009, an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, commonly known as Swine Flu, prompted the World Health Organization to issue a health warning about the virus. Within hours, billions of people around the world knew of the warning. The Nielsen Company, which provides researched information on consumer habits, reported that in April 2009, internet conversations about H1N1 spiked dramatically. They reported that 2.5% of all internet conversations in that month were about H1N1. More recently, the mosquito-carried Zika virus has captured online headlines. A quick Google search of “Zika virus” returned an astounding 68.2 million results. 

Even a search of recent Pinkerton Insights, our free intelligence e-mail reports distributed by our Global Risk Group, revealed that more than 30 posts since January 2016 contained Zika references. So, while older diseases may have been widespread, the news about them was not, unless reported by traditional news outlets. Today, everyone’s computer, phone or tablet is a news outlet and so, the internet plays a huge role in mitigating health risks. Pinkerton Operations Manager Marlon Guimaraes, based in Brazil, notes “We are getting more requests than ever that we include health issues in our risk assessments and they are quite specific. Our clients are generally aware of the major diseases that are, or have, affected certain regions. They want to make sure that these issues are examined for potential threats, which is part of our risk assessment process anyway, but clients have a greater sense of urgency about it.”

Disease Risks to Companies

The risk level a company faces regarding diseases is mostly a matter of employee and vendor exposure. While a company’s safest tact would be to limit, or eliminate, employee travel to nations experiencing an epidemic, that’s not always possible. Our recommendation is that employees be directed very specifically about what to do, and not do, when travelling to these regions. For example, beverage consumption can be a high-risk activity. Drinking liquids that come directly from sealed bottles is a good first step. However, one overlooked element is ice. Many times people will order a drink that requires ice, which comes from local water sources and can be contaminated. Food intake is another area of concern. 

“We tell clients to stay at internationally known brand hotels when travelling to high-risk regions of any kind but especially when diseases are the concern, ” said Morton. “Dining within the hotel provides more assurance that the food will be handled and cooked properly. And then we say to only eat cooked items, no raw vegetables, fish or meats. Nothing that’s been rinsed with water. I order my food very well-done, sacrificing taste for safety!” 

Vaccinations are a strong way to fend off disease if they are up to date. Companies should request that all traveling employees provide records of their vaccinations to determine the risk level. If they are not up to date, the employee should be asked to get the proper vaccination or, the trip must be canceled. Not only is having vaccinations a safety precaution against disease, but it can also eliminate disruptions to the trip. 

“We had a client’s employee travel to Nigeria, but he failed to update his vaccination card even though that was our recommendation. So, he was held up for several days before being allowed into the country. The potential delay could have been even longer with other countries.” And now, even vaccinations are not a guarantee of protection. A recent Washington Post article, “The superbug that doctors have been dreading just reached the U.S., ” highlighted news about new bacteria that is resistant to even the strongest of antibiotics. While the individual case, found in a Pennsylvania woman, is not cause for alarm, the underlying risk is that the bacteria will become pervasive, rendering known treatments for many diseases ineffective. Wide-spread disease risks are real and becoming more frequent; this is the reality of our world today. International travel is getting easier, more people are taking advantage of it and companies are exploring new markets as a way to continue their growth. 

It is more important than ever that companies create comprehensive plans and procedures regarding any travel or new operations that could put employees in contact with contagious diseases.

Published June 22, 2016