If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you have surely heard about the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil and other South American countries. The disease, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, appears to have a causal link with a birth defect known as microcephaly, characterized by a small skull and brain damage. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global public health emergency. But what is the virus, and how might it affect your workers?
The virus itself is not new. It was first identified in rhesus monkeys in Uganda in 1947. Five years later, Zika was identified in humans in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Over the next 50 years, outbreaks of Zika have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. Since that time, local transmission has been reported in many other countries in South America and elsewhere around the world. To date, there have been no reports of locally transmitted Zika cases within the continental United States although there have been reported cases in returning travelers. With more and more countries becoming affected and people traveling to many of these regions, the potential for locally transmitted Zika will increase greatly as the weather warms and mosquitoes begin breeding and biting.
Typically, the mosquito that transmits Zika is found in tropical regions and has been known to transmit dengue and yellow fever. It is an invasive species, native to Africa, but is found throughout the southern half of the United States. After the mosquito has fed on an infected individual, the mosquito can then spread the virus to other people through bites. In addition to transmission via mosquito bites, Zika has been reported to spread through blood transfusion and sexual contact.
The incubation period for Zika is not yet known but is believed to be anywhere from a few days to a week. The illness itself is usually mild with symptoms lasting for 2 – 7 days. The symptoms of Zika virus are similar to that of dengue. A few of the symptoms are:
- Joint and muscle pain
For most people, the infection is nothing serious. For pregnant women, however, the virus may cause fetal abnormalities like microcephaly or fetal demise. A firm causal link has not been proven, but the evidence appears to be strong that this disease is dangerous during pregnancy. There is also evidence that it can cause Guillan-Barre syndrome in some individuals, a very rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves and causes temporary paralysis.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control does not anticipate a widespread epidemic in the United States but does recommend limiting travel to affected areas and taking precautions against mosquito bites. Similar to other infectious viruses, prevention is pivotal in reducing the prevalence of Zika. Mosquitos prefer to be indoors or outdoors around people. With that in mind, it’s important to reduce contact between humans and mosquitos. Employers should make sure that outdoor areas are cleared of standing water (in barrels, buckets, tires, etc.), which are a perfect breeding ground for these nasty pests. They should encourage outdoor workers to maintain source distance, use insect repellents, wear clothes that cover the majority of the body, and use physical barriers such as mosquito nets to prevent the spread of this virus.