With the Olympics over, will there be a Zika virus legacy to face?

Sep 23, 2016

Following on from last week’s topic, and with Charlie currently out of the country on business, this week’s bulletin has been written by guest author, and Business Continuity Consultant, Robert Clark. Robert also delivers training for BC Training Ltd and is part of our team of highly experienced tutors.

While the world’s attention had been focused on containing the West African Ebola outbreak, the arrival of 2016 was accompanied by a warning that the spread of the Zika virus had exploded across Latin America and the Caribbean. Hardly had the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the West African Ebola emergency was over when it was declaring the alarming spread of Zika to be a public health emergency. Although the virus does not appear to be fatal, it is considered responsible for the frightening increase in the number of cases of microcephaly in unborn children. The consequences can be failure of their brains to develop normally, with the child subsequently being born with an abnormally small head.

“Throughout history, whether it is the Zika virus, Ebola, AIDS, smallpox, or influenza, infectious diseases have killed more people than wars, making them decisive shapers of history. They remain clear and present dangers to human health, economic development, and national security in an interconnected 21st century world, and we must remain vigilant against them” – (Blumenthal, Fakory, & Kingston, 2016)

This Zika outbreak is not only likely to have a detrimental affect on tourism across the infected countries, along with the knock-on effect on the industry’s supply chain, but in all probability it could have had a negative effect on the XXXI Olympiad, or Rio 2016 as it was more commonly known. However, Brazilian authorities quickly moved to reassure the watching world that it was safe to travel to Rio and the games would proceed as planned. While the medical profession remained split over the wisdom of the games taking place, it has been well documented that a number of contestants opted to stay away because of the Zika threat and with large numbers of stadium seats noticably empty it is highly likely that many would-be spectators may have also followed suit.

Despite the WHO subsequently announcing a ‘very low risk’ of the 2016 olympics facilitating the global spread of the Zika virus, Neuro-surgeon, Dr Marco Fonseca from Cucuta, Columbia suspects that the 2014 FIFA soccer World Cup finals, also hosted in Brazil, actually facilitated the rapid spread of the disease. He fears that the Olympic Games may expedite its proliferation still further, perhaps to California or Southern Europe. Fonseca has also observed an increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) which is an uncommon sickness of the nervous system in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness, and sometimes, paralysis. Although the connection between Zika and GBS remains unproven, Fonseca told BBC Newsnight reporter John Sweeney “Zika used to be a mild virus – now it isn’t. It has mutated.” In fact, a mutation in the virus may account for its explosive proliferation.

There have now been a number of confirmed cases of the Zika virus being sexually transmitted while recent reports of an outbreak in Miami, Florida which faces the Atlantic Ocean, and more recently in Pinellas County which is on the Florida Gulf coast almost 300 miles (480 Km) to the north-west have caused concern. With the threat of microcephaly, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office website states that “Pregnant women are advised to postpone non-essential travel to affected areas”.

As of 28th May 2016, The WHO declared that almost 60 countries were reporting transmission of the Zika virus, a number which is expected to grow. Although Zika was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda’s Zika forest, some 30 years before Ebola, epidemiologists still have a steep learning curve to negotiate to fully understand exactly what we are faced with. Before the new millennium arrived Zika had not been taken seriously as only the occasional human case had been reported although an outbreak in Micronesia in 2007 substantially raised its profile. At this time, there are no vaccines or anti-viral drugs available. Moreover, with the evidence of sexually transmitted Zika cases and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggesting that the virus can also be contained in blood and other body fluids, victims no longer need to come face to face with a the Zika carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito to be infected. Furthermore, with the established link to microcephaly and the suspected connection with the rise of Guillain-Barré syndrome, when considered along with the WHO estimate of 4 million people infected by year end 2016, the growing global concern is well justified.

In addition to Ebola and Zika, since the second half of the 20th century a number of new contagions have been identified such as HIV / AIDS, Legionnaire’s Disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease) and its human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Lassa fever, Marburg’s Disease, Nipah virus plus the resurgence of Lyme’s Disease. The identification of new contagions, especially those that can have fatal consequences for humans, serves to underscore the fact that mankind is engaged in a constant war against bacteria and viruses. Being prepared to face not just old foes such as influenza is not enough. We also must be prepared to face novel challenges from a global, national, organisational and individual perspective is of vital importance to us all.

As the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries the dengue fever virus, appears attracted to tropical climates, those countries that enjoy a more temperate climate, such as the UK, are not thought to be facing an immediate direct risk. This of course could change if the limited number of human-to-human transfers of the Zika virus experienced to date substantially increases. Moreover, the mosquito may also find some popular tourist playgrounds, such as the Mediterranean, an acceptable dwelling place.

Now with the 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony over, only time will tell what Zika legacy we will have to face and addressing that legacy will demand a top-down approach with the the World Health Organisation leading from a global perspective. Businesses will have their part to play too and they will find themselves in one of three categories – those operating inside Zika infected countries, those outside and those that have a foot in both camps. They will need to consider their position with regard to the health and safety of their employees not to mention their duty of care. Ongoing risk assessments should be undertaken to make use of additional information as it becomes available. Note should be taking of travel recommendations from Government bodies such as the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reputable health organisations, in addition to their health insurance providers.

Business travellers need to avoid visiting infected areas if they have a sexual partner who is pregnant or may become pregnant and likewise women who are or may become pregnant should also delay travel to these areas. Those visiting or residing in infected areas should be encouraged to wear long sleeves and trousers rather than shorts while using a suitable mosquito repellent that has been recommended by organisations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency. Within infected areas, businesses should train employees about the risks of mosquito bites and how to protect themselves especially those employees who work outside. Employees should be discouraged from leaving windows and doors open although if this is the only means of ventilation they should be fitted with insect screens to reduce the risk of mosquitoes gaining entry. Businesses should also endeavour to reduce the opportunity for mosquitoes to breed within their immediate vicinity by removing or emptying items that hold water such as watering cans, buckets, ponds and uncovered water tanks etc. Using appropriate insecticide sprays can also help although suitable precautions should be taken to prevent the spray being inhaled by employees.

“There is a long road ahead. As with Ebola, Zika has once again exposed the world’s vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and the devastation they can unleash. Alongside the emergency response that Zika necessitates, we must put in place the permanent reforms, health systems strengthening and proactive research agenda that are needed to make the global health system more resilient to the threat of future pandemics.” Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, (Roberts, 2016)

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