What Businesses Need to Know About the Zika Virus

It can be scary when we learn of a new health threat. The best thing we can do is take the time to learn about the threat, how it may potentially affect us, how it can be prevented and how it can be treated.

About Zika

According to the CDC the Zika virus is spread to people through bites by infected mosquitos. The illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Some people may never know they were infected.

For some, the virus can have devastating consequences, such as the alarming number of infected women giving birth to babies with microcephaly (causes small heads and brain damage). There is also emerging data that leads scientists to believe Zika can lead to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a dangerous autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis.

On Monday, February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) convened an emergency meeting to determine how to address the virus. Afterward, the Emergency Committee declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Implications for Your Risk Management and Insurance Program

We recommend if you have questions to reach out to your Willis Towers Watson insurance broker/client advocate/risk consultant about how Zika can impact your business. They have access to resources to help provide answers. Keep in mind each organization’s insurance policies may contain different language and coverage.

Business leaders would do well to ask themselves these questions.

Sick with CHIKUNGUNYA, DENGUE, or ZIKA?Symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control reports the following symptoms associated with Zika:

  • About 1 in 5 people infected with Zika virus become ill
  • The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache.
  • The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) for Zika virus disease is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week.
  • The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week.
  • Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for a few days but it can be found longer in some people.
  • Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.
  • Deaths are rare.

Travel or Living in High-Risk Locations

  • Do you have employees traveling or living in high-risk areas for transmission of the virus?
  • Have you reviewed your travel and other policies and procedures that address these types of outbreaks? Are you monitoring the employees?
  • Do your employees understand the risks?
  • If you are a U.S. company, have you reviewed your Workers Compensation language?
  • Do medical leave of absence procedures need updating?
  • How could you address the risks associated with women living or traveling to high-risk areas who are considering having children at this time? Do you restrict travel? Do they relocate? Have you spoken with your employment counsel?

Education

  • Are you prepared to disseminate educational information, from a trusted source, to those who need it? (The Centers for Disease Control Zika Virus page has materials readily available in English and Spanish to help with educational needs.)
  • Have you explored prevention measures for your business?
  • Have you considered a surveillance and control program to eradicate the mosquito population?
  • If your company is located in a high-risk transmission area, have you considered researching physical and chemical barriers to impede transmission?
  • Is your pandemic plan being updated to address emerging threats?

Media Attention

Is your media team prepared to address any “cases” or “stories” related to your organization? Media is eager for news stories focused on Zika. The story may not necessarily be about the virus but could focus on poorly controlled physical environments where mosquitos could thrive (standing water, trash, etc.) on your property

Additional Details Regarding Transmission and Prevention of Zika

The U.S. CDC provides the following information.

Transmission

  • These mosquitoes typically lay eggs in and near standing water in things like buckets, bowls, animal dishes, flower pots and vases.  They are aggressive daytime biters, prefer to bite people, and live indoors and outdoors near people.
  • Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.
  • A mother already infected with Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass on the virus to her newborn around the time of birth, but this is rare.
  • It is possible that Zika virus could be passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy. This mode of transmission is being investigated.
  • To date, there are no reports of infants getting Zika virus through breastfeeding. Because of the benefits of breastfeeding, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed even in areas where Zika virus is found.
  • Spread of the virus through blood transfusion and sexual contact have been reported.

Prevention

  • No vaccine exists to prevent Zika virus disease (Zika).
  • Prevent Zika by avoiding mosquito bites (see below).
  • Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite mostly during the daytime.
  • Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.

When traveling to countries where Zika virus or other viruses spread by mosquitoes are found, take the following steps:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. All EPA-registered insect repellents are evaluated for effectiveness.

Vector Surveillance and Control

The prevention or reduction of transmission of Zika  is completely dependent on the control of mosquito vectors and limiting person-mosquito contact. One of the solutions to this problem is called “vector control.” It involves both eliminating the places where these mosquitoes breed, or chemically treating those sites, and spraying chemical insecticides to kill adult mosquitoes, or at least keeping mosquitos away from humans.

The principal functions of mosquito-based surveillance programs are to:

  • Conduct public mosquito education campaigns
  • Conduct surveys to determine abundance, distribution, and type of containers
  • Initiate a community wide source
  • Concentrate control efforts around places with high mosquito density

Zika will not be eradicated any time soon. The world must mobilize an effective response, which could one day also include a vaccine. This outbreak just confirms we must remain vigilant in our preparedness and responsiveness as we continue to experience emergent health situations.

About Deana Allen

Deana E. Allen is Senior Vice President of the Willis Towers Watson National Health Care Practice, based in Atlanta…
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