Concerns about the Zika virus continue to grow. In February of this year, members of the World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern. While the virus was discovered almost 70 years ago, and outbreaks have been recorded in the past, scientists are learning more about Zika, with evidence mounting that it causes birth defects and other neurological complications. The symptoms for the average person are generally mild, and some argue that the media is blowing the potential impact of the virus out of proportion. Yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently monitoring at least 320 pregnant women with the Zika virus infection, and reported cases of Zika—and related birth defects—are much higher in other countries such as Brazil and Colombia.
U.S. business travelers need to stay informed about the virus. Last month, popular news personality for the “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie, announced that she would not travel to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics because she was pregnant and concerned about the Zika virus. Top athletes have also dropped out of the games—such as Jason Day, the world’s current #1 golfer, who withdrew in late June over concerns about his wife’s future pregnancies, and golfer Dustin Johnson who just announced his withdrawal last week. While they’re not your average business travelers, Guthrie, Day, and Johnson are ultimately individuals who need to travel for work, and Zika virus is clearly such a concern that it has caused them to opt out of important professional travel.
There are implications for business travelers as they consider if they should travel to countries with known Zika outbreaks, and business travelers also have rights that they might not even be aware of when it comes to making these decisions. In this article, we describe what business travelers need to know about Zika virus, including tips for prevention.
What is Zika Virus?
Zika is a virus that is generally spread through the bite of a specific type of mosquito—an infected Aedes species mosquito. Once someone is infected with the virus, it can be spread through sexual activity. For many individuals infected with Zika, the virus shows no symptoms. The World Health Organization indicates that when Zika symptoms occur, they are usually mild and include fever, skin rashes, pinkeye, muscle pain, or headaches. These symptoms generally last a few days. A connection between Zika and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), which can cause paralysis, has also been reported; however, the current understanding is that GBS is only triggered by Zika in a minor number of reported infections.
The biggest concern, currently, is that Zika can pass from a pregnant mother to her unborn fetus, and the virus is reported to cause the birth defect microcephaly and other fetal brain defects. Microcephaly is a condition in which a child’s brain and skull grow at a slower pace, often causing “cognitive delays and neurological problems,” such as speech delays, learning disabilities, and impaired motor functions. Because Zika can be transmitted through sex, it’s not just a concern for women because men can pass it to female partners who may be planning to get pregnant. In fact, the CDC is currently recommending that women who show Zika symptoms should wait at least 8 weeks after the symptoms start before trying to get pregnant, and the recommendation for men is much longer—at least 6 months. These guidelines are likely to be updated (potentially moved towards longer waiting timeframes) as scientists and physicians learn more.
There is one piece of good news about Zika, though. Norman Pack, M.D., OB/GYN, tells us that “once you have cleared the Zika virus, you are immune to it from then on.”
Zika and Business Travel Policies
While no mosquito-borne cases have been reported in the U.S., other countries with a significant travel spend have active outbreaks, such as Brazil (which ranks in the top 10 business travel spending countries)—making Zika a concern for international business travel. It is important for business travelers to be aware that companies have a Duty of Care towards employees, and employers can be held liable if they require a traveler to go to an affected area, if the employee gets Zika and it leads to birth defects. “It could be considered a pregnancy accommodation,” Denise Dadika, of the Epstein Becker and Green Law Firm, tells the Chicago Tribune.
As a traveler, if you are concerned about Zika, you should find out if your company currently has policies regarding Zika and travel. Many companies are beginning to develop policies. A good number are allowing females to defer travel, and some are allowing men to opt out as well. Yet, the majority, according to a survey of 321 survey respondents conducted by the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council, are only advising employees on Zika prevention—meaning that they have yet to create specific policies and are often dealing with the issue on a case-by-case basis.
If you find out that your company has not yet set a policy, you may be able to leverage duty of care concerns to opt out—especially if you are a female. You may need to get a letter from a doctor, or you might need to simply state your needs since some companies are implementing a “no questions asked” policy. You might even consider coming prepared with alternative ideas for how you can accomplish the same goals without traveling to an affected country—such as video collaboration. If your company seems less inclined to let travelers opt out, consider sharing the Travel Health Notices portion of the CDC website, which breaks down different countries into alert levels that advise appropriate precautions for travelers.
Planning for Zika Before and During Business Travel
Because of a company’s duty of care obligations, your first step to avoid Zika is to learn about your company’s policies, as you may simply be able to opt out of travel. If you find yourself needing to convince your company of your need to opt out, or if you only want to cancel travel if the risk is high, consider the following:
- Monitor outbreaks. Regularly monitor the CDC’s Zika Travel Information Website. Here, you can view up-to-date information on where outbreaks are occurring and whether the CDC recommends that you take extra precautions while traveling to a country or whether you should avoid traveling to the country altogether. Checking this site can help you plan travel and decide if you need to talk to your employer about canceling plans.
- Reschedule travel for colder months. If you are concerned about Zika but still want to meet clients or need to handle something face-to-face, see if you can reschedule your trip for when it will be cold. The mosquitos that carry the virus are not active in colder weather (generally lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit/11 degrees Celsius).
If you do decide to travel for business to a country where the Zika virus has been reported, prevention is of the utmost importance because there is not an antiviral drug to treat the virus (nor is there a vaccine to prevent it). The main ways to prevent the virus are to practice safe sex and avoid bug bites, but there are some specific strategies that can help increase your chances of not getting infected. For the most part, business travelers should follow the same prevention approaches as other travelers, although we have tailored our recommendations to business travelers’ specific needs:
- Choose the right repellent. Before your trip, purchase and pack an EPA-registered insect repellent with DEET, IR3535 or icaridin. Here’s a list of Consumer Reports’ top repellent choices, with Sawyer Picaridin coming in first place.
- Tips: (1) It’s important to do your research about repellents because some argue that regular DEET use has side effects such as headaches and dizziness, and some studies have even shown it causes neurological damage. Consider products with a lower DEET concentration (10%) if you’ll only be out for a few hours, or try lemon eucalyptus oil (approved by the CDC). (2) Bring your repellent with you to meetings or client meals, as you’ll want to reapply every few hours (follow the instructions on the bottle).
- Wear clothes that cover as much of your body as possible. Women might opt for pants rather than skirts; men might select long-sleeved shirts. Whether you’re dressed for a casual lunch with clients or you’re donning a suit for a presentation, light-colored clothes are best. Keep that in mind while packing.
- Don’t spray repellent under your clothing. You might be tempted to put on bug spray before dressing up for a meeting, but you actually should just cover exposed skin after you are dressed. Repellent under clothes doesn’t evaporate and accumulates on clothing.
- Treat your clothes. If your business travel will require you to be outdoors a lot, you can also consider treating your clothes with permethrin, a pesticide that can repel or kill insects. You can buy pre-treated clothing (although most of it is too casual for work attire), or you can treat your own clothes.
If you travel to a country with an outbreak, do you need to get tested when you return? When asked about testing, Dr. Pack indicated that “Since only one in five people develop symptoms, many do not come in for tests. The best way to detect Zika is through blood or urine samples in the first two weeks or so after symptoms appear, but some don’t get tested at all because they do not get symptoms. There is no rapid test, and sending tests to labs delays diagnosis.” Pack suggests that this can be a concern for those planning to conceive after one partner has been to a Zika-infected area.
At the very least, Pack suggests, “all pregnant women who have been to infected areas should be tested even if they don’t have symptoms.” Anyone who travels for work frequently and is planning to conceive should “discuss this with their healthcare provider,” Dr. Pack says. “The healthcare provider can help them plan the pregnancy in a way that will reduce the risk of viral transmission.”
Ultimately, while Zika is certainly not to be taken lightly, especially when birth defects are at stake, only a subset of business travelers—for now—need to truly consider canceling plans altogether. If family planning is not in a traveler’s future, taking careful precautions to avoid bites in affected areas may be all you need. Yet, as Pack reminds us, “the best way to prevent is to avoid exposure.”