Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2018

Cover Story

CDC and WHO Guidelines
Caution on Spread of Zika Virus

Zika virus is the latest in an alphabet soup of viral illnesses — SARS, MERS, Ebola — that started small and then raised concerns for meeting professionals. With clusters of the Zika virus increasing, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are taking action to limit the spread.

What it is: Zika virus is spread through bites from infected Aedes mosquitoes (the same ones that transmit dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever). The illness is usually mild, with symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis lasting from a few days to a week. According to the CDC, about 1 in five people infected with Zika will get sick. No vaccine or medicine is available to prevent or treat the infection.

Why the concern: WHO and CDC cite reports of microcephaly (a birth defect in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected) in babies whose mothers were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. The search, though, is on for a definitive link, as the number of outbreaks rises. The first local transmission of the Zika virus infection in South America came last May, in Mexico and Central America in November, and in the Caribbean in December. By January 28, WHO’s director-general Dr. Margaret Chan reported the spreading virus in about two dozen countries and territories in the Americas. In early February, local transmission of the Zika virus through sexual activity and returning travelers was identified in the U.S.

WHO, on the recommendation of a committee of experts, declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. It is supporting intensified research to determine whether there is a causative link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, as well as more capacity in countries to detect the virus, train clinicians and reduce Aedes mosquito population.

To prevent further spread, CDC is working with international public health partners and state health departments to alert health care providers and the public about Zika virus; provide diagnostic tests to state health laboratories; and detect and report cases. It is continually updating its travel notices with information and recommendations for prevention.

Other sources of information include: Business Travel Coalition, which has set up a resource center, and U.S. Travel Association, with a Zika virus toolkit.

Precautionary recommendations:
• The best prevention is protection from mosquito bites — removal of sites where mosquitos can breed; use of physical barriers (screens, doors, windows, sleep netting); insect repellent; wearing clothes that cover the body.
• Women of childbearing age, women trying to conceive and particularly pregnant women should reduce their risk of exposure. The CDC advises postponing travel to areas with outbreaks, and using condoms or abstaining from sex during pregnancy. However, WHO urges “no restrictions to travel or trade with countries, areas and/or territories with Zika virus transmission.” But travelers to those areas should be given advice on potential risks and measures to reduce their exposure.

Meeting professionals tell MeetingMentor they are monitoring the situation to see if/how Zika virus may impact their events. That’s the position Mary Thao, CMP, is taking with a high-level meeting in February at a resort in the Bahamas. “I’m not surprised that no one attending has contacted us. Many are well traveled and likely following the news on it,” said the director of events at ACA International. “If the meeting were in a location that has been affected, we definitely would be getting calls.” She knows the resort sprays early in the day and late at night for mosquitos, and no cases have been confirmed at the destination. Here is what rules her decision-making when issues like Zika virus arise: “Regardless of whether it’s there or not, it’s important to stay on top of it and ask questions: What is the reality there? How do we let attendees know? How close is it to the event dates? What are the risks of canceling or not canceling?”

Another meeting professional shared this: “We are not reacting at this time. The fact that it is happening mostly in the Americas (including the U.S.) allows us to keep other countries on the table. Until there is anything stronger or more threatening on the horizon, it is not affecting our decisions to go offshore.”

As for the Zika virus’s potential impact on the hotel industry, CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research, in a just-released Viewpoint paper, An Evolving Risk to the Lodging Industry, stated: “Past data suggests that for the most part, epidemics are not a direct threat to U.S. hotel demand because public health systems can manage the outbreaks. International markets, however, may be more susceptible to adverse shocks as a result of disease outbreaks if their public health systems are inadequate and do not contain the spread quickly and efficiently.” — Maxine Golding

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MeetingMentor, the leading publication for senior meeting planners, is circulated to the clients, prospects and sales associates of ConferenceDirect, which books more than 3.87 million room nights. www.meetingmentormag.com

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