The Zika virus is the latest source of sleepless nights for public health officials, but it is also starting to take its emotional toll on US employers. Reports of children born with microcephaly and an uptick in reported cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause numbness, nerve damage, paralysis and sometimes death in affected patients, are raising fears for many companies with cross-border operations that employees traveling to areas where an outbreak is occurring may come back affected by the rapidly spreading Zika virus. In this climate where headlines may stoke disproportionate fears of a pandemic, employers must remember to disseminate factual information to employees and refrain from over-reacting.
This GT Alert focuses on the specific issues the current Zika outbreak presents for employers and certain suggested responses. Yet, it is important to point out three basic facts about the current outbreak to help frame this issue properly from an employment perspective. First, although it is suspected that Zika virus exposure is the cause of increased microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome occurrences in Brazil and other affected areas, and indeed the full Zika virus genome has been detected inside the brain of at least one affected fetus thus far, the causal connection between the virus and these increases has not been scientifically demonstrated at this time. Second, although Zika virus exposure is overwhelmingly caused by the bite of a specific mosquito (and a second type is also thought to be a lesser source of transmission), a handful of cases have been reported where the virus has been transmitted by human to human interaction (through exchange of bodily fluid, including sexual intercourse, and blood transfusion). Third, the Zika virus is largely asymptomatic, meaning that perhaps as many as 80 percent of people who may carry the virus display none of the symptoms of the disease or are unaware of, or unaffected by, those symptoms. These symptoms, which include primarily rash, fever, joint pain and conjunctivitis, and occur between two and seven days after a bite, may be so mild that affected individuals are unaware that they have been infected.