According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 1,400 Americans have died as a direct result of West Nile virus since the first case in the United States was reported in 1999 . With record levels of virus activity in the Southern states due to warm temperatures and high humidity, it’s more important than ever to create an emergency preparedness plan for your company, which will better prepare your employees for an outbreak in your area. Appropriate disaster preparedness planning ensures that even a disease like West Nile virus will not disrupt your operations.

Create an Emergency Preparedness Plan to Better Prepare Your Employees

An emergency preparedness plan helps protect your employees and your business as a whole in the event of a disaster. If your staff feels threatened by an epidemic, such as West Nile virus, then a calculated and well-organized emergency preparedness plan will inform them on how to react to the situation. Knowing exactly what steps to take after an outbreak occurs, including what and how to communicate with employees and the respective roles of your Crisis Team members, will not only prevent your company from experiencing negative effects, but also may save your employees’ lives.

Before implementing a West Nile virus emergency preparedness plan for your business, it is important to know the specifics about this possible threat. West Nile virus is a disease that exists in birds and may be transferred to humans through the bites of contaminated mosquitos. Established in temperate and tropical climates around the world, this mosquito-borne disease was first detected in humans in 1937 in the East African country of Uganda. In 1999, the first case in the United States was discovered in Queens, New York and the disease quickly spread across the Western Hemisphere. Since then, West Nile virus has become a global concern and some businesses have begun protecting themselves by implementing an appropriate emergency preparedness plan. The virus does have the potential to be fatal; however, the majority of those infected do not require treatment. Currently, there is no vaccine available.

Who is at Risk for West Nile Virus?

Simply put, anyone who resides in an area where mosquitos live is at risk for West Nile virus infection. However, some areas and climates provide a more conducive environment for mosquito breeding and are therefore at a greater risk than others. More specifically, hot and humid climates, coastal regions, and areas near wetlands provide favorable habitats for a larger mosquito population. In addition, if a region experiences a mild winter, the following mosquito season may potentially be more dangerous because fewer insects were killed during the cold weather. If your business has multiple locations across the United States, each location should have a unique emergency preparedness plan tailored towards the risk factors of the area.

While the West Nile virus can surface in anyone who is bitten by an infected mosquito, it can affect certain demographics more severely. For example, both young children and older individuals (over the age of 50) are more prone to show symptoms than others. In addition, any individuals with an unhealthy immune system (perhaps caused by immunosuppressant drugs, HIV, or other similar diseases) are also more at risk to experience symptoms caused by West Nile virus. If you have employees with certain conditions or disabilities, take these factors into special consideration when developing an emergency preparedness plan for your business.

What are the Symptoms of West Nile Virus?

It is important to remember that a large majority of those infected by West Nile virus do not show symptoms and do not require treatment. Of those who do experience symptoms, most will be mild to moderate, such as:

• Abdominal pain and diarrhea

• Nausea and vomiting

• Fever

• Headache

• Loss of appetite

• Muscle aches

• Rash

• Sore throat and swollen lymph nodes

However, signs of a more severe infection include:

• Confusion or stupor

• Coma or loss of consciousness

• Loss of vision

• Muscle weakness or tremors/convulsions

• Stiff neck

• Unilateral weakness of an arm or leg

How Can I Prevent Exposure to West Nile Virus?

Your emergency preparedness plan should outline the various ways that you and your employees can prevent exposure to West Nile virus. The easiest way to do so is by wearing clothing that covers a large area of skin, including long sleeves and pants. Also, if outdoors, use insect repellant with DEET or other EPA-approved ingredients. It is best to avoid the outdoors at peak mosquito times, such as dawn and dusk. Ensure that all windows and doors at your business have screens in place.

In the event of a threat, your emergency preparedness plan should call for the close control of mosquito populations near your office. Removing or treating any nearby standing water where mosquitos breed, such as ponds, puddles, sewage areas, swimming pools or fountains, will reduce your employees’ risk of contracting West Nile virus.  

If it appears that your community’s mosquito population is increasing in number to potentially dangerous levels, contact your local public health officials and work with them to request insecticide spraying near the area of your business.

Communication is Key in the Event of an Outbreak

If numerous reports of West Nile virus have surfaced in your area, your emergency preparedness plan should include utilizing your emergency notification system to alert your employees of the outbreak. Ensure that your staff knows that it is not contagious from person-to-person and that it is only life-threatening in very rare cases. Managing your employees’ fears during a time of crisis is very important, as you should make sure that panic does not cause widespread overreaction and misinformation about West Nile virus. A business with streamlined communication about the disease has a better chance of continuing to run smoothly, even if an outbreak occurs in your area.

In addition, if one of your employees does contract West Nile virus, your emergency preparedness plan should include how best to respond to this infection – if it’s severe, the employee will need to visit the doctor to prevent future complications.

Recognize the Threat and Protect Your Company

According to WebMD.com, 2012 may be the worst year yet for new cases of West Nile virus in the United States. Because the disease has spread and become prevalent in 47 states, business owners should acknowledge its severity and potential impact on employees. Creating an emergency preparedness plan emphasizing employee preparation, information about West Nile virus and methods of prevention, will prove to be the best response in the event of an outbreak in your area. Providing your employees with the information necessary to protect themselves from potentially-infected mosquitos will help safeguard your business’s future.

About the Author

Bryan Hill has a master's degree in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology from the University of Georgia. As the Emergency Management Consultant at Preparis, Inc., Hill, who is Advanced Disaster Life Support (ADLS) certified, helps companies utilize the industry's first comprehensive subscription-based workforce preparedness platform that delivers notifications, emergency checklists, response protocols and crisis training to businesses and employees. His accomplishments include being one of the first individuals to receive a Graduate Certificate in Disaster Management from the University of Georgia's Institute of Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, as well as multiple FEMA certifications. For more information on Preparis, Inc., please call (877) 544-5845 or visit <a href="http://www.preparis.com/">www.preparis.com</a>.