Fourteen months ago, we advised clients about what they did – and did not – need to do to address concerns that the Ebola virus would affect their employees and their workplaces. We emphasized that, however the Ebola epidemic turned out (and it turned out not to be a major issue for most U.S. workplaces), it provided employers with an opportunity to prepare for the inevitable next global outbreak of an infectious disease. That "next" outbreak – the Zika virus – is now upon us, but again, the risk to most U.S. employers and their employees appears limited.
To be sure, the Zika virus is a serious global health problem. On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of the Zika virus throughout Latin America and the Caribbean a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern." The WHO estimates that three to four million people will be infected with the virus across the Americas over the next year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a health advisory and traveling notices for Americans planning to travel to regions or countries where local transmission of the Zika virus is rampant.
Yet it is essential that U.S. employers and their employees keep the Zika virus in context. It is rarely fatal, and most who contract the virus never have any symptoms. For those who develop symptoms, it is generally like having a case of the flu. Zika would not be attracting such attention, except that now there are reports of a suspected link to a serious but rare birth defect in babies born to women who are infected with the virus.
What is the Zika virus?
The CDC describes Zika as a viral infection that most commonly results in symptoms that include fever, rashes, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). These symptoms generally last several days to a week, but rarely make people sick enough to require hospitalization. Only about one in five people infected with the virus actually becomes sick and symptomatic.
Although discovered nearly 70 years ago, the Zika virus is garnering newfound attention because of recent evidence that the virus is linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome and microcephaly, a neurological disorder that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, resulting in severe developmental issues and, in some cases, death. The CDC issued a statement that "[t]he full spectrum of outcomes that might be associated with infection during pregnancy" and the factors that might increase risk "are not yet fully understood."
How is it transmitted?
The Zika virus is transmitted to people predominantly through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. In rare instances, the virus has also spread from mother to child when the mother is infected during the pregnancy. The CDC says that "[s]exual transmission of Zika virus is possible," citing three reported cases, but notes that "whether infected men who never develop symptoms can transmit Zika virus to their sex partners is unknown," and "sexual transmission of Zika virus from infected women to their sex partners has not been reported." Zika is not transmitted by air, water, or non-sexual human contact.
What should employers do to protect their employees and workplace?
An employee with symptoms is like an employee with the flu. The employee probably will need to go home; some may conceivably work through it. The Zika virus is not a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Mild enough symptoms might not even qualify as a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Employers need to keep in mind that the symptomatic employee does not pose a risk of transmitting the virus to others in the workplace, short of sexual contact.
Zika may present an issue for employers and their employees facing international travel. Non-pregnant employees are free to travel, but should follow CDC guidelines for preventing mosquito bites while traveling in Zika-infested areas.
Pregnant employees are the heart of the concern. Currently, the CDC's travel guidelines recommend that pregnant women postpone traveling to regions where local transmission of the Zika virus is common. Employers should advise pregnant employees of the CDC's recommendation. Should a pregnant employee resist such a postponement, the organization should consult counsel.
Like Ebola, the Zika virus will not be the last global infectious disease crisis for U.S. employers to consider. Prudence and sound risk management dictate being able to apply the best available public health information to the workplace, providing employees with access to that information, and making decisions accordingly on a case-by-case basis.