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The Zika virus and business continuity

Blog post   •   Feb 01, 2016 10:40 GMT

Although it is not headline news, there have been quite a few news items on the virus, its effect on pregnant women and its rapid spread through South America and the Caribbean. With a major outbreak occurring in Brazil at the moment and the Olympic games taking place in Rio later this year, this is one of the angles the news media are taking on the story.

So what is it and what are its effects. Here are some facts:

  • The virus was first identified in Africa in 1947.
  • Currently it has a major hold in South America and the Caribbean and it is advancing towards the USA with the latest cases in Panama.
  • It can be contracted in a similar way to Malaria, by being bitten by a mosquito.
  • For most people symptoms will comprise of a mild fever which lasts for 2-3 days with symptoms of mild headaches, maculopapular rash, malaise, conjunctivitis, and joint pains. Some people do not know they have had the disease.
  • At present there is no known treatment or cure.
  • The major issue is that if a pregnant woman gets the disease in the first trimester of pregnancy there is a link to microcephaly and brain damage. Microcephaly is where a child is born with an unusually small head which can lead to impaired brain development.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Brazilian health authorities reported more than 3,500 microcephaly cases between October 2015 and January 2016 but the full spectrum of outcomes that might be associated with infection during pregnancy and the factors that might increase risk to the foetus are not yet fully understood.
  • There has also been a case where the virus has been transmitted from a male to a female through unprotected sex.
  • The mosquitoes that carry this virus live in tropical locations so it is very unlikely for the disease to spread to UK or the North of the Americas. There is a map of the spread on Wikipedia.

So what does this mean to us as business continuity people?

For me, the main issues are associated with people who live in outbreak zones where the disease and mosquitoes are prevalent. With no cure at present, I would take the normal precautions you would to prevent malaria. Ensure wherever possible you don’t get bitten, by wearing insecticide and exposing as little uncovered flesh as possible. This can be difficult as this mosquito, unlike the malaria mosquito mainly feeds by day. The second activity is to try and limit areas where mosquitoes breed. They like still water, so by using insecticide and getting rid of the water this reduces the number of mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito.

I think we need to identify if any of our staff are going to travel to an area affected by the outbreak. We should then do a risk assessment to determine whether they should go or not. I would suggest that anyone who is pregnant should not go. If you are going to produce a policy for your organisation on Zika you should consult with a doctor who can advise you appropriately on the precautions which should be taken and help you write any guidance or policies.

If you have expatriate staff in the countries affected should you look at the possibility of withdrawing them or at least their dependents if they are at risk? If you are not going to offer this, then should you be looking at the human resources issues associated with Zika and be able to offer the families guidance and facts about the virus.

If you have a subsidiary or a branch of your organisation in the Zika infection zone what is your organisations’ policy and guidance to staff?

You may want to talk to your health insurance provider to see if they are providing guidance or putting any limits on the coverage of your policy.

If you have staff travelling to the Zika infection zone on holiday, should you offer any advice to them or is this not your responsibility as this is an activity conducted in their own time and they are not the responsibility of your organisation?

One of the roles of the business continuity manager is to identify new threats and ensure that the organisation is prepared for them. If we can identify threats before they become general knowledge, or lots of staff start asking about them, it gives our organisation the opportunity to prepare and agree our guidance and position on them. So I suggest read up on the virus, assess your organisations’ risk exposure and then discuss your findings with the business continuity sponsor or senior management within your organisation.

Charlie Maclean-Bristol is a Fellow of the Business Continuity Institute, Director at PlanB Consulting and Director of Training at Business Continuity Training.

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