Until recently, few people had heard of Zika, a rare and seemingly benign virus that hadn’t been recorded in the Western Hemisphere before 2014. But last year Zika began to spread explosively throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and alarm grew after health officials linked the virus to a spike in birth defects and newborn deaths.
Much is still unknown about Zika. The virus is carried from person to person by mosquitoes, though a small but alarming body of evidence suggests it can also be transmitted sexually. 80% of people infected with Zika display no symptoms, which makes it difficult to track and contain new cases. The World Health Organization now projects the virus to reach every country in the Americas, including the United States.
With reports of Zika infections on the rise, employees and management at many companies are being forced to reconsider how to handle travel to affected regions.
Where Has Zika Spread?
The Center for Disease Control notes that, “specific areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing are often difficult to determine and are likely to change over time.” For now, most of the anxiety about Zika is centered on Latin America. As of February 17th, Zika is currently circulating in the following countries:
- Caribbean: Barbados, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- South America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Suriname, and Venezuela.
- Central America: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panamá.
- Other affected countries: American Samoa, Cape Verde, Mexico, Samoa, Tonga.
How Are Companies Reacting to Zika?
Companies with extensive operations in Latin America have been the first to respond to the outbreak.
For instance, Kimberly-Clark, a large maker of paper products profiled in a New York Times article on Zika and worker safety, is educating its 16,000 employees in affected areas with information about how to protect against the virus — from what type of clothing to wear to the benefits of insect repellent. Kimberly-Clark also issued a travel advisory to “ensure that any travel to the region is for critical business and not a normal run-of-the-mill kind of business meeting.
In addition to offering passengers refunds or free cancellations, several airlines such as Delta, United, and Lufthansa have allowed flight attendants and pilots to opt out of flights to destinations affected by Zika. Airlines naturally have well-developed protocols for managing safety threats such as viral epidemics and terrorism advisories. It’s perhaps less clear what precautionary measures should be taken by companies with only limited exposure to Zika. Aggressive responses such as travel bans could result in costly operational disruptions and unnecessary panic, while a hands-off approach could leave employees vulnerable.
Health Advisories and Employee Privacy
There are additional complications arising from the fact that the threat posed by Zika is not the same for all employees. Zika’s link to birth defects means that women who are pregnant or might become pregnant are uniquely at risk. Because of the possibility of Zika being transmitted sexually, the CDC has also extended health advisories to male partners of pregnant women.
Setting Zika guidelines is difficult given privacy concerns. David O. Freedman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology quoted in the Times article, points out there are many legal implications and restrictions around employee health recommendations, raising the question of whether companies can “even hint at advising...female employees not to get pregnant [while traveling to or working in Latin America].”
Protecting employees from Zika requires juggling corporate liability and individual privacy issues. After reviewing recommendations from several HR industry groups, The Economist concluded that barring pregnant employees from travelling to Latin America for work “would almost certainly violate anti-discrimination laws,” and that companies should instead “give all employees, regardless of gender or pregnancy, the option of avoiding travel to countries with Zika.”
Business Travel Holding Steady
Despite widespread media coverage, Zika hasn’t yet slowed down business travel volume. Business Travel News reports that corporate travel agencies including Carlson Wagonlit, Hogg Robinson Group, and BCD Travel have all observed neither an increase in trip cancellations nor a decrease in trip bookings to affected regions in Latin America. This suggests companies and their employees are reacting with measures short of outright travel bans.
One travel manager quoted in the BTN article says travelers have raised no concerns thus far, and that her company remains focused on spreading information “in conjunction with our health, risk and HR departments to make sure people are informed of what’s going on and how to protect themselves.”
Most companies seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to Zika, adding pop-up messages within their corporate booking platforms, disseminating health advisory information, and reminding employees that they’re allowed to adjust their travel plans. As the Zika outbreak continues to develop, so too will the response from business travelers.