Meeting and travel planners have a lot of questions about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and unfortunately some of those questions are unanswerable right now.

For example, despite a dramatic increase in the cases of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, the causal relationship between the Zika virus and the birth defect has not been proven, said Dr. Eugene Delaune, USA chief medical officer for Europ Assistance, who participated in a February 18 webinar presented by the Global Business Travel Association. Also presenting were Christopher Pardee, manager, health intelligence, iJet, and Dr. Myles Druckman, SVP, medical services, International SOS. Delaune led off the webinar with what is known about the Zika virus now:

• It is carried by the aedes aegypti mosquito, which is most active during the day.

• The symptoms of Zika infection are mild, including fever, rash, conjunctivitis, muscle/joint pain, headache.

• Symptoms begin two to 12 days after infection and last for two to seven days.

• Only 20 percent of people have or notice symptoms. A more important way to look at this, as Delaune pointed out, is that 80 percent of people who get infected never even know it.

• There is no Zika vaccine.

• As of February 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 82 Zika virus cases reported in the U.S., all of them in people who contracted the disease while traveling. There were, as of that date, no cases of Zika virus contracted in the continental U.S.

Recommendations for Travelers
Although the link between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and birth defects in their babies has not been proven, there is enough indirect evidence to cause the World Health Organization to declare the spread of Zika a “health emergency” and to recommend that pregnant women defer travel to areas where Zika transmission is active and to discuss travel plans with their doctors. Women of childbearing age also should consider deferring travel to Zika-affected areas; if they do travel, they should delay getting pregnant upon returning. (The CDC maintains an updated list of locations where Zika is active.) 

“Obviously the main measure of protection is don’t get bitten,” said Druckman of International SOS. The CDC has a downloadable PDF covering the best ways to avoid mosquito bites. Insect repellants containing DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 are all safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women when used as directed, according to the CDC.

International SOS conducted two polls recently, one of a general corporate audience on January 28 and the other specifically of corporate travel planners on February 5. Druckman shared some of the survey results, noting that if these questions were asked today, the responses might well be different:

What Steps Is Your Company Taking in Response to the Zika Virus Outbreak?
(Corporate survey conducted January 28)
49 percent:  Communicating with employees
37 percent:  Nothing
18 percent:  Identifying and tracking travelers in high-risk areas
9 percent:  Holding a crisis planning or similar meeting
7 percent:  Conducting employee health risk mitigation training for those in affected areas
6 percent:  Putting travel restrictions in place

What Is the Status of Your Company’s Zika Plan?
(Corporate survey conducted January 28)
56 percent: We have not started to develop a plan
36 percent: Our plan is in process
6 percent:  We are communicating our plan
2 percent:  Our plan has been completed and integrated

What Advice Are You Sharing With Employees and Travelers?
(Corporate travel planner survey February 5)
79 percent:  Prevent bites
75 percent:  Read the advice of authorities such as the CDC
64 percent:  Defer travel if pregnant
41 percent:  Consult a doctor
5 percent:  Nothing

Is Your Company Offering the Option to Decline Travel to Affected Areas?
(Corporate travel planner survey February 5)
55 percent: Yes, offered to all women and men
11 percent: Yes, to pregnant women only
9 percent: Yes, to women only
25 percent: No