What the Zika emergency means for Business Travel
The WHO said that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil constitutes an "extraordinary event" and a public health threat to other parts of the world. At the same time, the WHO has found "no public health justification" for any restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of the virus, which is carried by the Aedes genus of mosquito. While WHO experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is "strongly suspected," it has not yet been proven.
The WHO said that the most important protective measures at this time are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women.
According to an analysis in the New York Times, the WHO is trying to strike a balance between getting information to the public and scaring it. Experts the Times spoke with said that an overraction could punish countries that are experiencing epidemics by provoking restrictions on travel, trade or tourism that would hurt their economies. Other experts the Times spoke with said that the WHO's decision could have political overtones -- with Brazil poised to host the Olympics next summer, any travel ban, even for pregnant women, would be a serious blow to the country.
Following the announcement, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) released a statement advising travelers to follow the health and travel advisories issued by the authorities and to take appropriate precautions to avoid getting bitten by the Aedes mosquito when traveling to places with a high risk of infection.
"These are normal anti mosquito protection procedures, using insect repellent, avoiding places with standing water and covering up where possible," the organization said in a written release.
The WTTC also said that it is still too early to assess the impact of the Zika virus on the travel and tourism sector, as tourism boards, health organizations and travel companies are still working together to formulate a response in impacted countries. Most airlines, cruise lines and tour operators from originating countries are being flexible, the WTTC said, by offering alternative plans or refunds to pregnant women and their families who prefer not to travel to affected areas at this time.
For example, last week United Airlines and American Airlines both moved to offer travel refunds to passengers traveling to many countries affected by the virus. Customers booked on United to areas affected by the virus can reschedule or get a refund, while pregnant women who were planning to travel to parts of Central America can get refunds from American.
The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) has launched a resource center for information on the virus at Zika.travel. The BTC projects that any impact on air travel demand from the virus will largely be felt on the leisure side of the business. At the same time, the BTC said this impact could be "significant," given WHO’s projection of a very rapid escalation to 4 million cases in the Americas alone.
In the Caribbean, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) released a statement last week urging Caribbean countries and national tourism associations to work together to control the mosquito population as a means of combating the virus. The CTO and CHTA said they are in close contact with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to monitor and research the Zika cases that have now surfaced in some Caribbean destinations, and to communicate prevention and control measures to residents and visitors.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a resource center with information on prevention and travel to affected areas at www.cdc.gov/zika.
By Adam Leposa, International Meetings Review
Photo: CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith