Zika virus: Things you need to know

 

Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania.

The current outbreak started in Brazil then spread to other Americas’ countries.
Symptoms of the disease appear only on one out of four people having Zika virus, and can not monitor a large number of cases, which make it difficult to know the true extent of the disease in the American continent.

Zika Facts
•    Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes.
•    People with Zika virus disease usually have symptoms that can include mild fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days.
•    There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.
•    The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.
There is strong evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, a birth defect with small head and brain, when pregnant woman transfer the virus to her fetus.

Prevention
Mosquitoes and their breeding sites pose a significant risk factor for Zika virus infection. Prevention and control relies on reducing mosquitoes through source reduction (removal and modification of breeding sites) and reducing contact between mosquitoes and people.
This can be done by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-coloured) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows; and sleeping under mosquito nets. It is also important to empty, clean or cover containers that can hold water such as buckets, flower pots or tyres, so that places where mosquitoes can breed are removed.
Special attention and help should be given to those who may not be able to protect themselves adequately, such as young children, the sick or elderly.
During outbreaks, health authorities may advise that spraying of insecticides be carried out.
Travellers should take the basic precautions described above to protect themselves from mosquito bites.


Zika in the workplace

Can an employer require a medical examination for an employee who has traveled to an area with a Zika outbreak before they return to work?    

Generally, no.  Under the ADA, employers can require a medical evaluation only if it is justified by business necessity. In this context, the ADA permits an employer to request medical information or order a medical examination when the employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee will pose a “direct threat” because of a medical condition. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Pandemic Guidance states that an employer must take direction from the CDC or state/local public health authorities in determining whether an illness is a direct threat, and cannot make that assessment “on subjective perceptions . . . [or] irrational fears.”  Because Zika is not transmitted from person to person in causal contact the ADA standard is probably not met in most workplaces at this point in time.


 Can employers impose a quarantine for employees returning from travel to the Caribbean, Central and South America so that they do not come into the workplace for that period?
 Because Zika is not known to be transmitted from person to person in casual contact, public health agencies have imposed no quarantine on persons returning from areas in which the Zika virus has been detected.  Employers who isolate or quarantine such individuals when public health agencies have  taken no such action risk liability under medical privacy laws, disability discrimination laws, state wage and hour laws, as well as potential race and national origin discrimination claims.


- Does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or its state plan counterparts require employers to have a Zika policy?
OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) standard requires employers to have a program, protections and training for employees who are occupationally exposed to blood or specific bodily fluids.  This standard extends to cleaning up blood in the workplace.  All employers with a BBP program should review their BBP program for any issues arising specifically from Zika that are not already included in the program.

May an employee refuse to perform his or her job or travel based on concerns about Zika?
Under the OSH Act, employees may refuse to work only where there is an objectively “reasonable belief that there is imminent death or serious injury.”  Refusing to work without such an objective belief may result in disciplinary action by the employer.  Given that Zika is spread by mosquito bites, which can be prevented with appropriate precautions, this standard is unlikely to be satisfied absent particular factual circumstances such as pregnancy.  However, given the level of public interest and concern, extreme care should be taken to avoid adverse employment actions at this time due to a refusal to work.  Use of counseling, education and other available managerial skills are appropriate to avoid confrontations and legal challenges.

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