As many meeting professionals know, last week the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus a global public-health emergency.
There is currently no vaccine or treatment for the virus, which as in many previous “outbreak” situations, is not actually new but had been detected earlier, according to Professor Seppo Meri, secretary general of the International Union of Immunology Societies (IUIS). The main serious risk, Meri said, is for unborn fetuses; it’s recommended that pregnant women not travel to areas in which the Zika virus is prevalent. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that women of childbearing age who are thinking about becoming pregnant consult with their health-care provider before travel to these areas, and follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip. (A comprehensive list of affected areas, government advisories, and travel-related news about the virus is available at ustravel.org/zika.)
The WHO declaration called for a coordinated international response to detecting and preventing the disease, and for controlling the mosquito populations that spread it, but officials said the organization found “no public-health justifications” for travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.
New information about the spread of the virus has been arriving all week; more countries have been added to the list of those where Zika has been found, and on Friday the CDC updated its guidelines for the prevention of transmission of the virus through sexual contact as well as blood transfusions.
Because there is still so much unknown about Zika, Convene turned to Joan L. Eisenstodt, the principal of D.C.-based consulting and training company Eisenstodt Associates LLC, and one of the industry’s leading experts on risk management. Eisenstodt offered the following points:
• If you’re contracted with venues and vendors in countries or counties (such as Florida) where there has been a warning, look first to your crisis plan to see where this fits. And talk with your attorney — it is uncertain whether ‘warnings’ from the CDC fall under force majeure and/or impossibility clauses.
• If you do not have a plan, consider the impact of the warnings on the meeting and to those attending. Even the major airlines are going to change schedules for pregnant personnel. Two major airlines are allowing crew who are concerned about flying to the Caribbean and Latin America to opt out of those flights.
• Talk with your attorney and with your insurance carrier about the long-term impact of the decisions you make. I can imagine lawsuits if someone attends a meeting, and the group didn’t issue warnings and offer opt-outs. The airlines are allowing waivers; some are offering refunds.
• Consider what you’ll do if someone in your group needs a blood transfusion while at the meeting. New articles show that cases have been contracted from blood transfusions.
“The big issues are legal — canceling a meeting and contracts — versus the safety of people,” Eisenstodt said. “The real concern of attendees contracting the virus versus hurting the populations of those areas by moving a meeting based on reports.
“The questions, of course, revolve around how much hype there is around the virus versus the reality of the risk of someone in the group contracting the virus,” she added. “In risk management, we always teach that people come first and their safety comes first.”