Anti-virus programs, security updates, firewalls – companies invest millions to protect computers from damaging viruses while little is done to prevent influenza, an equally costly bug in terms of lost productivity.
Germany has been hit hard by the flu virus
According to the German Office for Security Information Technology, computer viruses result in annual damages amounting to millions. It’s no wonder then that companies rush to get the best when it comes to preventive IT medicine such as anti-virus programs, security patches and fortified firewalls.
But when it comes to protecting their workers from contagious air-born viruses like influenza, relatively little is done, even though these bugs can be potentially just as costly in terms of lost productivity and revenue, not to mention life. A recent study in Germany shows that a large-scale flu wave, such as the one now spreading across northern Europe, has a visible economic impact.
“Over €1.3 billion ($1.7 billion) are lost through the spread of the flu,” said German health economist Karl Lauterbach in a weekend interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. The majority of losses are caused by employee absence and the corresponding decline in productivity.
Two million sick employees
In Germany, health professionals have reported a significant increase in the number of people infected by influenza compared to the previous year. Alarm bells are ringing over a major flu wave sweeping across the country. Given the virus' quick spreading germs, economists estimate that some two million workers will call in sick, with the average employee staying home for five days.
“An average flu epidemic results in approximately two million absent employees every year in Germany,” said Boris Augurzky, economist at the Rhine-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research (RWI). When one considers that a lost work day costs approximately €200 per person, the total sum of lost productivity and revenue for a single day amounts to around €450 million, including doctor costs, hospital visits and medication, he said.
For the entire flu season, which can last through March, costs in Germany are expected to easily surpass €1 billion.
Stock market shivers
In addition to the reduced revenue and productivity, investors also tend to hold back on purchases and investment during the flu season, especially when the virus makes the round in the cities where major stock markets are located.
The stock exchanges closely monitor the outbreak of contagious diseases, such as SARS or the Asian bird flu, which caused the Bangkok stock market to drop 15 percent and the Hong Kong Hang-Seng-Index to fall 10 percent last year. A major influenza epidemic, which would have considerably higher death rates and strike in major economic regions such as the US and Europe, would be catastrophic, said Frankfurt-based economist Hans-Jörg Naumer in an interview with Die Welt newspaper.
“Although the markets would recuperate fairly quickly after the flu epidemic runs its course, the psychological uncertainty would be long-lasting,” Naumer said.
An immunization is not 100 percent effective, but it could reduce the number of flu cases and sick days
Unlike the software updates and anit-virus programs business can download onto their computers, air-born contagious viruses cannot be prevented with complete effectiveness. An immunization can only combat a specific strain of flu virus. If it mutates or mixes with other viruses, the initial shot is no longer effective.
Nonetheless, health officials are increasingly recommending flu vaccines for people with frequent public contact or those who work in crowded conditions – such as open office environments. In most cases the insurance company or the employer covers the cost for the vaccine. At €16 per shot, the money is well-invested considering a sick employee accounts for more than 10 times that amount.