Leading US government agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have issued new guidelines for protecting workers from occupational exposure to Zika virus in a fact sheet on Friday, 22 April. The guidance is directed towards employers, outdoor mosquito control workers, healthcare and laboratory workers, to protect themselves from mosquito bites and exposure to an infected person’s blood or other body fluids.
According to CDC, Zika has been spreading in the areas of Central and South America since last year and has raised concerns due to its association with major health issues, prominently the birth defects including microcephaly and other neurological disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome — a rare condition causing temporary paralysis. Since there is no vaccine to prevent the Zika virus at present, therefore employers and workers are advised taking precautionary measures to avoid infection.
The fact sheet released by the agencies also focused on briefing about the modes of transmission of the Zika virus, one of which is bites from Aedes mosquitoes, the same mosquitoes that carries dengue virus and chikungunya. The infection spreads on exponential rates from person to person through mosquito bites and sexual contact.
Senior environmental health specialist affiliated with the CDC Jill Shugart specified the individuals who are more prone to contracting the Zika infection. According to him, outdoor workers, employs in a healthcare or lab setting, along with business travelers should take special care.
The new set of rules standardized by CDC and OSHA urges employers of outdoor workers to inform them of the risks of exposure to mosquito bites and to train them on how to protect themselves from Zika. The employers were specifically singled out and advised to provide EPA-registered active insect repellents, and to ensure the use of protecting clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs, and other exposed skin along with gear (including hats and mosquito netting) by the outdoor workers. The guidelines also recommend employers and workers to remove stagnant water (in the form of tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) from work sites to reduce chances of propagation for mosquito breeding. During hot weather, workers are advised to wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that covers exposed skin and eliminates risk of mosquito bites. It is also suggested to provide workers with adequate water, rest, shade, and monitor them constantly for evading symptoms of heat illness and stroke.
The federal health authorities have also suggested considering reallocating pregnant women, women who plan to conceive, or men who are anticipating pregnancy to indoor tasks, in order to minimize direct exposure to Zika. Another very important aspect mentioned in the guidelines is travelling instructions advising pregnant women to avoid travel to the areas under red alert of Zika, mostly Latin America and the Caribbean. The guidelines also endorse employers being flexible about business travel to such areas, especially for the workers who are/might get pregnant along with male workers whose partners may conceive.
The guidelines also provide additional precautionary measure for the workers returning to the United States, from areas reporting Zika transmission. It is suggested upon returning individuals should protect against mosquito bites for three weeks to prevent passing Zika to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people.
For healthcare workers, the guidelines call for the use of standard infection control precautions to prevent exposure to Zika from infected blood. Standard precautions include the use of personal protective equipment (gloves, gowns, masks, and eye protection) to avoid direct contact with blood and other potentially infectious materials, including laboratory samples. Recommendations for the labs authorities include ensuring that the facilities are following Biosafety Level (BSL) for the handling of blood or other potentially infectious materials.
Dr Rosemary Sokas, a professional health expert and former chief medical officer for OSHA, supported the move of the government authorities of releasing the guidelines by saying that the new interim guidelines are a smart step. She added, “It’s a terrific document. I’m really impressed with it.”
CDC mentioned that they will continue to update the guidelines as soon as new information related to Zika virus transmission and related health effects is retrieved.
According to CDC records, it was not until January 22, 2016, when Incident Management System and Emergency Operations Center (EOC), compacted the response to the outbreaks of Zika happening in America and increased incidences of birth defects, especially Guillain-Barré syndrome, were reported in areas affected by Zika. Similarly, on 1st Feb, 2016, the World Health Organization identified increased cases of microcephaly along with other neurological disorders in some areas affected by Zika and declared it as a public emergency situation.