Employers may be considering the risk posed by the recent spread of the Zika virus and potential claims filed by employees who contract the disease. The Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti species mosquito. These are the same mosquitos that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Mosquitos become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitos spread the virus to other people through bites. The virus can also be spread through blood transfusion or be sexually transmitted.
Where Is Zika Spreading?
Prior to 2015, Zika virus outbreaks occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil. Locally transmitted cases were also reported in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. As of March 16, 2016, no mosquito-transmitted Zika cases had been reported in the continental U.S., but cases have been reported in returning travelers. Outbreaks are occurring in many countries, and the virus will continue to spread, but it is difficult to determine how and where. However, researchers who tracked dengue fever outbreaks in the past predict small local outbreaks of the Zika virus in Florida and Texas.
What Are the Symptoms?
About one in five people infected with the Zika virus become ill. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain and headache. The exact incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week. The illness is usually mild, with symptoms lasting for several days to a week. The Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for a few days, but it can be found longer in some people. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon. Deaths are rare. Cases are identified by the symptoms, confirmation of recent travel to locales with confirmed infections and blood tests.
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How Is Zika Treated?
No vaccine or medications are available to prevent or treat Zika infections. An infected individual showing symptoms should get plenty of rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration and take medicine such as acetaminophen to relieve fever and pain. Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), like ibuprofen and naproxen, should not be taken until dengue can be ruled out to reduce the risk of hemorrhage (bleeding). An individual taking medicine for another medical condition should consult a healthcare provider before taking additional medication.
What Special Precautions Should Be Taken by Pregnant Women?
A mother already infected with the Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass the virus to her newborn around the time of birth, but it is rare. It is possible that the virus could be passed from mother to fetus during pregnancy. This mode of transmission is being investigated and is not yet understood. To date, there are no reports of infants getting the Zika virus through breastfeeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant use special precautions including avoiding travel to affected areas and using protective clothing and insect repellant. Women who are trying to become pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant should consult with their healthcare providers before traveling to these areas and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip. There have been reports in Brazil of microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant. Microcephaly is a medical condition in which the circumference of the head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly. Additional studies are planned to learn more about the risks of Zika virus infection during pregnancy.
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What Should Employers Do?
Businesses with employees traveling to areas of infection should follow the precautions outlined by the CDC, including preventative measures to avoid mosquito bites. If a workers’ compensation claim is filed for Zika virus exposure, it should be handled the same as any disease or exposure claim would be handled. A thorough investigation of the claim and circumstances involved should be conducted, and medical tests and evaluations should be done to confirm a diagnosis. Compensability determination would follow applicable regulatory standards for determining whether exposure occurred within the course and scope of employment.