Some jobs may be more risky when it comes to getting infected with the Zika virus, so health officials Friday issued interim guidelines on how employers and workers in higher risk jobs can best steer clear of the mosquito-borne illness.
Zika has been spreading through Central and South America since last year. It’s of concern because it’s linked to birth defects and other health issues, including a rare condition that can cause temporary paralysis, called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
There is no vaccine to prevent the Zika virus, so for now, employers and workers need to take precautions to avoid infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
If you work outdoors, in a health care or lab setting, or you’re a business traveler, you may be at a higher risk for contracting the Zika virus, said Jill Shugart, a senior environmental health specialist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Zika virus is transmitted to people through bites from Aedes mosquitoes — the same mosquitoes that carry dengue virus and chikungunya. When a mosquito bites someone who’s infected and then bites someone else, the virus can spread. It can be spread through sexual intercourse, too.
Shugart said outdoor workers may be at the highest risk of exposure to the Zika virus and that employers need to educate employees about how to protect themselves.
“We recommend employers provide insect repellent with EPA active ingredients and encourage workers to use it,” said Shugart.
They should teach staff about the benefits of wearing clothing that covers hands, arms, legs, heads — any exposed skin — to reduce the chances of being bitten by mosquitoes, she added.
“If a worker indicates they are pregnant, we encourage reassignment,” she said, citing the birth defect concerns.
Health care workers are also potentially at risk for infection through blood or other infectious materials, though there haven’t been any documented cases of health care worker-to-patient transmissions.
Shugart said biosafety standards need to be followed, including safe and correct handling of contaminated “sharps” – needles and other lab equipment used to cut or puncture skin for testing and procedures.
The CDC has issued a travel advisory urging pregnant women to avoid travel to countries and territories, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the Zika virus has been found. The guidelines recommend employers consider being flexible about business travel to areas with active Zika transmission for workers who are concerned, and that they delay travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission, especially for workers who are or may become pregnant or whose sexual partners may become pregnant.
Even if someone isn’t feeling under the weather after returning from an area with Zika, they need to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks so they don’t pass Zika to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people.
Dr. Rosemary Sokas, an occupational health expert and chair of the department of human science in the school of nursing and health studies at Georgetown Medicine, said the biggest risk will be for outdoor workers.
“Not throughout the United States, but pretty much the Gulf Coast and places in U.S. where there’s concern about this virus becoming readily transmitted. They’ve already had dengue in Florida and Texas and they’re anticipating the same issues with Zika,” said Sokas, who is also a former chief medical office for OSHA.
She said workers in landscaping, construction, agriculture, road and track maintenance, forestry and fishing are among those who could be impacted, and will include “lots of low-wage, high-risk working populations.”
She said, “The risk is you’re in poor housing, you’re outdoors, you’re near drainage ditches. The trouble with these mosquitoes is they can breed in a bottle cap.”
For many outdoor workers, there can be language issues which also translate to challenges in Zika virus education and access to health care.
“There are federally qualified health centers that are safety net health care” that can benefit some workers, she said.
Other potentially at-risk workers include camp counselors and people who work for parks and recreation departments.
Sokas said the new interim guidelines are a smart step. “It’s a terrific document. I’m really impressed with it.”
The guidelines will be updated as health officials learn more, said Shugart.
“We are hoping employers and employees use these document as a preparedness tool so they can start planning,” she said.