Zika Virus: A World Health Issue That May Impact Relocation Programs
The mosquito-bite-transmitted Zika virus has been a health concern for some time now. Prior to 2015, the virus had been identified in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. More recently, the virus has been identified in Brazil and Central America, and it has spread to other countries, including the U.S.
For most individuals, the viral infection is generally mild and rarely requires hospitalization. Symptoms of Zika virus infection include fever, joint pains, and eye redness (conjunctivitis). Diagnosis of the disease can be confirmed by blood tests performed by local health departments. Treatment is rest, fluids, and acetaminophen as needed for fever or pain. Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen) should be avoided while experiencing the Zika virus infection symptoms. The infection symptoms generally last one week or less, and there appear to be no long-term health effects of the virus.
The major concern with the Zika virus is for pregnant women. The virus has been linked to numerous birth malformations and neurological syndromes in women who have been bitten by infected mosquitos during their pregnancy. For this reason, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that pregnant women, or those planning on becoming pregnant, not travel to areas of the world where mosquitos infected by the Zika virus have been identified. For pregnant women returning from any area that has been identified with mosquitos carrying Zika virus, obstetrical evaluation should follow the return.
Young children and older individuals should use the same precautions so as not to be bitten by a potentially infected mosquito in the “Zika Zone.” If confirmed positive for Zika virus, treatment would be the same (rest, fluids, medications to reduce fever and pain). Obviously, the very young, the very old, or anyone with an immunocompromising disease might have more severe symptoms. As this is a viral infection, treatment is supportive. Anyone with pre-existing or underlying medical conditions that could be exacerbated by the viral infection should be closely monitored.
What are Companies Doing to Protect Assignees?
So far, our clients are making sure that their expatriates and local employees are educated about the virus by providing them with resources and advice on travel and health, but we haven’t been made aware of companies making formal policy adjustments as yet. That may begin to change, however; the World Health Organization (WHO) convened an emergency committee on February 1, 2016 to discuss spread of the virus, which is expected to infect between 3-4 million people in the Americas in 2016. They found that “... a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread,” and that the virus “... constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The committee also found that there was “... no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus.”
For more information, read the recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article The Zika Virus: What Employers Should Not Do, which discourages forbidding travel or requiring quarantines and medical evaluations.
To gather more information on what organizations are doing in response to the Zika virus, we will be releasing a quick pulse survey and will share the survey results. We will continue to keep you updated on any developments as they become available. You can also let us know what your company is doing by commenting on this blog post.
How to Prevent Exposure to the Zika Virus
- Because there is no Zika virus vaccine available, prevention of Zika virus infection is by avoiding mosquito bites.
- Individuals traveling to, or living in, areas where there is potential for mosquito bites should use insect repellants containing DEET on a regular basis.
- Open windows should have screens, and sleeping under a mosquito net should be considered.
- Wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants when outdoors is advisable to minimize risk of mosquito bites.