The World Health Organization (WHO) is projecting that the mosquito-borne Zika virus will spread rapidly in the coming months. The purpose of the Zika.travel Resource Center is to provide travel managers and the travel and tourism industry with efficient and timely access to breaking news, analyses, tools and important government links concerning this virus for decision-making purposes. The resource center can be accessed at Zika.travel and is updated daily.
WHO has stated that while a causal relationship between the Aedes aegypti mosquito-borne Zika virus and brain, hearing and vision damage in babies is “strongly suspected,” it has cautioned that the linkage remains only circumstantial for now. (See http://btcnews.co/1QTNGx4.)
WHO’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, stated last week: “The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty.” “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.” Depending on the uncertainties, the seriousness of the questions and the availability of answers, both leisure and business travel demand could be impacted.
WHO in early February convened a committee of experts in Geneva to determine if the outbreak poses a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC),” a rare designation for an “extraordinary event” which can lead to immediate and coordinated international action. (See http://btcnews.co/1UDbtAh.)
U.S. health officials indicate that there will not be a vaccine ready for clinical trials until the end of 2016 and that it will likely be several years before a vaccine is widely available. Couple that with what WHO describes as an “explosion” in infections in the coming months in the Americas and the issue of the August 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro becomes a rather urgent one to be considered.
According to the International Olympic Committee, some 500,000 tourists and athletes from 206 countries and territories are expected to travel to Brazil, now considered the epicenter of the Zika outbreak. As such, an identified risk is the transmission of the virus back to the home countries of those visitors to Brazil.
In terms of potential impact of the Zika virus on air travel demand, it will likely be largely on the leisure side of the business. It could be significant, though, given WHO’s projection of a very rapid escalation to 4 million cases in the Americas alone, and the propensity during these kinds of outbreaks for misinformation and rumor that can unnecessarily alarm tourists.
Bearing in mind that an estimated 80 percent of people infected with Zika experience no symptoms, and therefore do not know if they have been infected, female business travelers of childbearing age may decide to forego or otherwise postpone travel to the 32 and growing number of countries and territories across the globe until there is more clarity from officials.
To avoid panic, and unnecessarily canceled leisure or business travel trips, or worse outcomes, highly effective and timely communications from governments and health organizations will be critically important on a number of subjects. Miscommunications, misunderstandings and rumors during the 2014 Ebola epidemic resulted in otherwise avoidable problems. Zika.travel will provide the travel industry with timely and accurate information so that informed policy decisions can be made.