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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Panasonic Orders Some Families Home on Pandemic Risk

Panasonic Orders Some Families Home on Pandemic Risk

By Kanoko Matsuyama and Pavel Alpeyev

Feb. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Panasonic Corp., the world’s largest maker of consumer electronics, ordered Japanese employees in several emerging markets to send their families back to Japan on concern of a potential influenza pandemic.

The company in December instructed staff assigned to parts of Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and South America to repatriate their families by September, Akira Kadota, a spokesman for Osaka- based Panasonic, said by telephone today. He declined to comment on the number of employees or households affected.

Panasonic said last week it will cut about 15,000 jobs and report a loss this year. More than half of the company’s 209 subsidiaries outside Japan as of April 2008 were in the Asia- Pacific region.

“It’s a bit of a surprise,” said Naoteru Teraoka, who helps oversee $21 billion at Chuo Mitsui Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “I would understand if there was a sudden outbreak that warranted concern, but there don’t seem to be any recent developments.”

Panasonic may be the first major company to order families home on concern people wouldn’t receive needed health care in case of a widespread flu outbreak. A pandemic could kill 71 million people worldwide and lead to a “major global recession” costing $3 trillion, according to a worst-case scenario outlined by the World Bank in October.

“This is part of our preparations for a new type of influenza,” Kadota said by telephone. “We chose areas after considering the prevalence of bird flu, and the capability of medical facilities and access to them. This is not part of the cost cutting.”

Singapore Staff Spared

The world is closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last of the previous century’s three pandemics occurred, according to the World Health Organization.

The company has been reviewing how to handle a pandemic, and decided to repatriate families after consulting Japan’s government and the Geneva-based WHO, Kadota said.

Honda Motor Corp., Japan’s second-biggest carmaker, considered bringing home families of expatriates in China after a woman in Beijing infected with bird flu died on Jan. 5, said Hideto Maekawa, a spokesman for the company. The carmaker has advised employees to cut down on “unnecessary and non-urgent” business trips, he said.

Panasonic isn’t concerned about any single country more than others, and Singapore staff won’t be affected by the repatriation, he said. The Nikkei newspaper reported the plans earlier.

International health officials have been monitoring the H5N1 strain of avian influenza for more than a decade for signs it could mutate into a form that is easily spread between humans. H5N1 has infected at least 406 people in 15 countries since 2003, killing 63 percent of them, according to the WHO’s Web site. The organization lists 11 cases of the virus in humans this year.

Panasonic shares added 0.9 percent to 1,130 yen. The stock plunged 52 percent last year.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at