The Zika Virus: What to Know and How to Protect Your Employees

In early 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus outbreak as a global emergency, bringing worldwide attention to the disease that first popped up in Brazil in May of 2015, when the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding a confirmed Zika virus infection in the country.

Zika Virus Distribution Map The latest estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the Zika virus has now spread to at least 29 countries, and the WHO estimates 3 million to 4 million people across the Americas will be infected with the virus in the next year. 

So, what exactly is the Zika virus? According to the CDC, Zika is a disease that is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. Only 1 in 5 people infected with the virus will show symptoms, and the illness is fairly mild, so people can be infected and not even realize it.

In fact, Brazil’s top health official, Health Minister Marcelo Castro, announced recently that the Zika virus outbreak is proving to be worse than believed because of the fact that cases show no symptoms.

Castro revealed that Brazil will start mandatory reporting of cases by local governments when most states will have labs equipped to test for Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has quickly spread through Latin America.

The big problem is the outbreak in Brazil has led to multiple reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, causing poor pregnancy outcomes and women giving birth to babies with birth defects.

Common Symptoms and Cure

The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week, and severe disease requiring hospitalization being uncommon.

The virus has no vaccine or cure at present, so it’s not easy to get a handle on this burgeoning public health crisis. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections. The Brazilian government has partnered with Instituto Evandro Chagas and the University of Texas to develop the Zika vaccine, which will be tested in clinical trials next year and scheduled to be available in the market in 3 years.

Multiple reports have also mentioned a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly (a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age) in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant.

Getting Infected

The mosquitoes that carry the virus — the same culprits that spread Chikungunya and dengue — are known to be aggressive daytime biters. They can also bite at night, so it’s important that if you’re in a high-risk country, that you wear long clothes and socks and try to protect your skin.

Mosquitoes become infected when they bite a person already infected with the virus and then they spread the virus to other people through additional bites. There have also been cases of the virus spreading through sexual transmission, but that is very rare with only three confirmed cases. The virus also transmits from mother to child during a pregnancy, and that’s where the real risk is with this disease.

If infected with Zika, the CDC recommends dealing with it as you would any illness — getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and taking acetaminophen to reduce fever and pain. However, don’t take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, as this won’t help.

Traveling Abroad

In Brazil alone, there have been more than a million cases have been reported. Outbreaks of Zika have been reported over the years in Brazil, tropical Africa, Caribbean, Central America, Cape Verde, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The countries most affected by Zika and have the highest cases include:

  • Brazil – More than a million cases have been reported
  • Colombia – More than 25,000 cases, including over 3,000 pregnant women
  • Bolivia – More than 10,000 cases
  • El Salvador – Over 5,000 cases
  • Venezuela – More than 4,000 cases
  • Honduras – More than 1,000 cases
  • The U.S. —approximately 35. All contracted outside of the states.

In February, the Dallas County Health and Human Services announced the first known case of the disease’s transmission in the U.S. through a sexual encounter. This is a rare occurrence and the CDC is continuing to explore that avenue of transmission.

In 2016, the CDC has issued travel notices for people traveling to regions and certain countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. It’s important that anyone going abroad to live or work visit the CDC Travelers’ Health site.

Specific areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing are difficult to determine and change over time, so it’s important to stay on top of the situation.

Protect Your Business

Savvy businesses will want to ensure that they are taking precautionary measures to protect their employees against Zika. Here are some tips:

1.Educate Your Employees: Whether employees are traveling or not, it’s a great idea to talk to them about what the Zika virus is and the best way they can combat the virus and the mosquitos that carry them. Make sure those travelling to affected areas understand the risks and provide safety training.

You should also give employees who are at risk the option to “opt-out” of travel to these regions.  For HR reasons, asking employees about their pregnancy plans is not advisable so determining how to adequately allow employees to avoid travel if they are concerned must be considered.

2. Review Your Risk Management Plan: If you have employees who will be visiting any of these countries—especially women who are pregnant or who may be thinking about it— it’s vital to review your risk management plan to know what to do in the event a problem occurs.

3. Keep Up with News: Businesses and travelers should monitor ongoing information, as new info seems to be flowing in daily. For the most up-to-date info, visit the CDC and its latest travel advisories.

4. Get Insurance: Although most health insurance policies do not have exclusions for viruses including Zika, make sure your group health insurance policy covers Zika and other viruses. With Clements’ comprehensive international health insurance coverage, your employees will be protected if someone contracts the virus during a business trip. Zika typically doesn’t require medical evacuation.

As an employer, you need to provide duty of care and to educate your employees. As a safeguard, you should consider purchasing Employer’s Liability coverage in case law suits arising out work-related injury or illness, typically involving negligence or allegations of negligence by the employer. Personal accident policies typically don’t cover Zika as viruses are not considered accidents.

To develop a risk management plan and the best insurance solution that will safeguard your employees, contact a Clements specialist. Call us today at +1.202.872.0060 or 800.872.0067 or e-mail to discuss how Clements can mitigate risk against Zika and other perils to protect your organization 

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