By Debra A. Cooper, RN, MSN, MBA/HCM, CIC, CPHRM, Coverys Senior Risk Specialist

The following blog post is part three of a three-part series, "Zika: Keep Your Patients and Practice Safe". Be sure to also read part one about how to recognize and respond to Zika, and part two about what to tell your patients about Zika virus.

How to Reduce the Risk to Healthcare Workers

As with any infectious disease, Zika virus can pose real threats to healthcare workers who come in contact with infected patients. While there was only one known case of transmission from a patient to a caregiver at the time of the writing of this article (August 2016), that case (in Utah) is a reminder that there is still much to learn about Zika and how to control its spread. Because the virus is found in bodily fluids, vaginal secretions, and semen, healthcare workers should continue to follow standard precautions when caring for patients. 

You and your colleagues in your medical practice should be vigilant with sharps precautions and should don appropriate personal protective equipment if there’s a risk of coming in contact with the body fluids of a patient who has been diagnosed or is suspected of having Zika infection. 

Again, knowledge is power. Encourage everyone in your healthcare practice to take some time to familiarize themselves with the resources for practitioners on the CDC website.  

Don’t Blink: How to Stay on Top of the News

The best way to keep your patients and your practice safe is to take the lead in learning about Zika and its transmission, then continually sharing what you know. The body of knowledge about Zika is constantly growing, and our understanding of the disease can change at a moment’s notice based on new developments. As such, it’s wise to regularly consult and other reliable sources, like the World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC provides updated data regarding Zika virus that is specific to locations (with updated maps), how many infections have occurred (with distinction between locally acquired infections and travel-related infections), and the number of adverse effects of being infected (like Guillian-Barré and deaths). Information in newspapers, broadcast, or online news reports should be verified, when possible, by the CDC and/or WHO websites. 

It’s important to stay on top of news regarding Zika because the world and its circumstances continue to change. There may continue to be circumstances or events that raise questions about whether the Zika outbreak is poised to worsen or whether the spread of the virus is being adequately contained. One such example was the recent 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where 500,000 foreign tourists attended the games and then returned to their homes in more than 60 countries around the world. But despite widespread concern that travel trends related to the Olympics could hasten the spread of Zika, the New York Times in early September 2016 (weeks after the end of the Games) proclaimed that the World Health Organization confirmed that no Zika cases had been reported during the Rio Olympics. 

A few final bits of news about Zika:
  • As for future protection, it’s possible that, once infected with Zika, people may be rendered immune to future Zika virus infection. This is a currently well-informed postulation that is not 100 percent conclusive at this time. 
  • As of the time of the writing of this article, the majority of Zika cases were so mild that some patients didn’t even know they were ill; severe adverse effects after infection remain the exception to the rule. 
  • There is also much to be learned about transmission, particularly the risks to healthcare workers. The Utah case involved a healthcare worker whose patient had a viral load that was unusually high (100,000 times higher than seen in blood samples of other infected patients), so one may assume that this patient-to-caregiver transmission was a rare and isolated event.
  • Clinical trials with a newly developed experimental vaccine to combat Zika infection were initiated by the National Institutes of Health in early August 2016. According to a recent NBC News report, “The vaccine will be tested in 80 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 35, at three locations: the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.; Emory University in Atlanta; and the University of Maryland in Baltimore.” 

Now is the time to get educated, get new processes and protocols in place, and get the confidence you need so that your patients and your practice are as safe as they can possibly be ― from Zika virus and from whatever outbreak comes next.

Want to know more about how to prepare and respond to Zika? If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read parts one and two of this three-part series on Zika virus.

No legal or medical advice intended. This post includes general risk management guidelines. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal or medical developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal or medical advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances.