From freakout to slow burn, Zika has potential to impact business

Zika fears could affect business travel, job recruiting and the supply chain

zika mosquito
Daniel Becerril/Reuters

The arrival of the Zika virus in the U.S. is raising questions. Will it affect business travel? Will it hurt recruiting in affected regions? Does it pose supply chain problems? The answer may be yes to all those questions.

Zika is spreading. The cases in the U.S., with the exception of Puerto Rico, are from people who were infected outside this country. There's an expectation that eventually the U.S. will see cases that are locally acquired, the result of a mosquito bite.

For now, Zika is largely confined to South America. In those regions where it has been spreading, businesses "are seeing staffing shortages or unwillingness for people to travel," said Don Hicks, the CEO of supply chain maker LLamasoft. The company's tools enable firms to create digital models of their supply chains to monitor and optimize operations.

Zika "has the potential to cause some major disruptions to our way of life in the U.S.," Hicks said, "whether it's potential employees unwilling to accept jobs in the Gulf or a consumer shopping in a big box store in New Hampshire discovering that an item is out of stock because shipments aren't getting delivered."

"Zika is going to touch just about every American in some way," he said.

cdc maps of mosquitoe ranges us1 Centers for Disease Control

Others aren't so sure.

"In Florida, Zika has to get in line behind dengue fever and chikungunya fever," said Scott McPherson, the CIO of the Florida House of Representatives, referring to other diseases that have spread by mosquito in the state. McPherson has also been involved in state pandemic planning.

Of the Zika virus, "it's going to be more of a slow burn," McPherson said. "I don't think it will be difficult to recruit here for that reason (Zika) or for any other reason, because I don't think we've seen enough cases yet."

There are some people who firmly believe that a Zika outbreak, similar to what Brazil is seeing, "will never happen to a large extent in the U.S. because of our quality of life," which includes air conditioning and efforts to eliminate standing water, said Elizabeth Anderson Fletcher, an associate professor in the University of Houston's Department of Decision and Information Sciences.

But Fletcher points out there is also poverty in Houston and places where people leave windows open because they don't have air conditioning.

"All it takes is one mosquito, and Houston has a huge mosquito problem," she said.

U.S. health officials warned Monday that  Zika may be more of problem than first believed.

"Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, a deputy director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And so we absolutely hope we don't see widespread local transmission in the continental U.S. We need the states to be ready for that," she said at a press briefing.

Zika is spread by mosquitoes but also can be sexually transmitted. It's most alarming impact is to women who may be pregnant. The virus has been linked to birth defects.

Fletcher is part of team looking at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital response to the Ebola crisis. One man, a Liberian national who arrived in Dallas from Liberia, was suffering from Ebola. He went to the hospital, was misdiagnosed, sent home, and later two hospital nurses contracted the virus.

Fletcher's paper examines what went wrong, and blames hubris in part.

America has a "it can't happen here attitude" and a superiority complex over the rest of the world, Fletcher said. But there were also "abysmal failures" in Dallas.

Zika and Ebola are different, but when it was announced that there was an Ebola patient in Dallas, "there was a massive freakout, and I think it did impact travel to Dallas," Fletcher said. She added that something similar could happen here because of Zika but to a lesser extent.

One impact from the Zika has been a huge increase in demand for mosquito repellent, and manufacturers are now producing all they can, said Toby Brzoznowski, the executive vice president of LLamasoft.

There is a belief that the media coverage of Zika will be influential on the decision making in terms of recreational and business travel in those regions that see cases.

"The media storm will outweigh the actual conditions, but it will certainly affect travel into the South," Brzoznowski said.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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