During March and April 2016, the Zika virus has been the topic of much discussion and anxiety. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency and it is anticipated that over four million people will be affected by the end of the year. This anxiety has made its way into workplaces, especially those with employees whom have recently traveled to the affected areas.

What Is the Zika Virus?

Zika disease is a vector-borne infectious disease. The disease is spread by the Zika virus, which is transmitted via mosquitoes (the vectors). The virus is considered to be a flavivirus and belongs to the same family as yellow fever and West Nile. However, unlike some of these diseases, there is currently no vaccine or specific treatment available for the Zika virus.

History and Origin

The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 by scientists while researching yellow fever in a species of monkey in the Zika Forest in Uganda. The monkey had developed a fever and the scientist isolated from its serum the transmissible agent now known as the Zika virus. From the time of its discovery up until 2007 when a major epidemic occurred in Micronesia, confirmed cases of Zika virus infection in humans were rare.

In April 2015, there was an outbreak of the Zika disease in Brazil. The reasons for the outbreak were cited as the increased flow of foreign visitors to the country for the FIFA 2014 World Cup in 2014, as well as the large population of insect vectors that inhabited the region. Since then, the outbreak of the disease has been ongoing throughout South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. In February 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika disease a global emergency, putting it in the same category of concern as Ebola.

How Is the Zika Virus Transmitted?

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily to humans via the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. This species of mosquito is also responsible for the spread of the dengue and chikungunya viruses. The female mosquito feeds on virus-infected blood. This blood enters the mid gut of the mosquito and into its circulatory system, where it travels to the salivary glands. The mosquito then bites its victim, injecting the virus-infected saliva while it feeds.

The Zika virus can also be spread via sexual contact. The virus tends to survive longer in semen than in blood. Therefore, a man that has Zika symptoms can spread the virus to his sexual partner(s).

The Zika virus can also be transmitted via blood transfusions. There are currently no known cases in the United States. However, multiple cases are currently being investigated in Brazil.

A mother infected with the Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass it on to her offspring at the time of birth, but this is rare.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms of the Zika virus are:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pains
  • Red eyes
  • Muscle pains
  • Headaches

The Zika Virus and Pregnant Women

The most significant concern from the Zika virus is the risk to pregnant women. After the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil in April 2015, there has been an increase in the number of babies being born with congenital microcephaly. Congenital microcephaly is a birth defect in which the size of the baby’s head is smaller than expected for age and sex. As a result, the brain does not develop normally during pregnancy. Currently, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) are investigating the link between the Zika virus infection and congenital microcephaly. Therefore, because of the association between the Zika virus and microcephaly, pregnant women should take steps to prevent mosquito bites.

Challenges In the Workplace

Controlling or preventing the spread of the Zika virus at the workplace can be quite a challenge for employers. This is due to the fact that while some actions may seem to be in the best interest of employees, those actions may violate state and federal laws. Therefore, employers must take into consider these laws, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) when tailoring their response strategies. Following are some actions employers may want to reconsider:

  • Demanding that employees undertake medical examinations – The ADA prohibits mandatory medical examinations unless the employer views the employee’s medical condition as a ‘direct threat’. Since the Zika virus is not spread through normal employee-to-employee contact, the Zika virus is not considered to be a ‘direct threat’ to other employees
  • Prohibiting pregnant employees and female employees of childbearing age from travelling to affected areas – This can result in a gender discrimination claim against the employer. If a pregnant employee is willing to travel to an affected area for business purposes, then the employer must interact with that employee to make reasonable travel accommodations

So, What Should Employers Do to Protect Their Employees?

All employers have a duty to protect their employees. The following are some simple actions employers can take:

  • Educate employees about the risk of travelling to affected areas, the modes of transmission of the Zika virus, the signs and symptoms, as well as precautions to prevent mosquito bites
  • Communicate and notify all employees about the Zika virus and provide information about who can be at risk
  • Encourage sick employees to stay at home until they feel better and to take advantage of sick or other leave policies
  • Allow all employees to opt out of business related travel to affected areas; do not limit this offer to pregnant women or female employees of childbearing age only
  • Check the work environment at least once per week for any items that can hold water; this eliminates mosquito-breeding sites
  • Protect outdoor workers from mosquito bites by providing them with insect repellent

Do Not Overreact!

It is important that employees do not overreact and heed the directions given by their employers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not anticipate a widespread epidemic in the United States. However, there are steps employees can undertake to prevent contracting the Zika virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the best way to prevent the disease is to protect oneself from mosquito bites. This can be done by:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and ling pants
  • Using insect repellent
  • Staying in air-conditioned spaces or spaces with insect screens on the windows and/or doors