As churches and church leaders prepare for international missions trips or other activities, they must anticipate in advance any safety, security, or health related concerns participants might encounter during the trip. Churches planning to travel to some areas internationally in the near future should be aware of one significant health concern that could affect their travel plans: the Zika virus.
Before traveling, churches should familiarize themselves with what Zika is, how it is spread, and how it can affect those who contract it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the basics of Zika: “Zika virus disease is caused by the Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito,” the CDC states. “The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Other symptoms include muscle pain and headache.”
While according to the CDC, “The illness is usually mild,” contracting the virus can have future implications that churches should ensure individuals are aware of before travel.
“Pregnant women should not travel to any area with Zika,” the CDC states. “Travelers who go to places with outbreaks of Zika can be infected with Zika, and Zika infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.”
Apart from the risk of microcephaly in infants during pregnancy, are there any long-term effects of contracting Zika? The CDC points out an additional ramification that may be caused by the virus: “Several countries that have experienced Zika outbreaks recently have reported increases in people who have GBS,” the CDC says. “Gullian-Barré syndrome (GBS) is an uncommon sickness of the nervous system in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness, and sometimes, paralysis.”
The CDC notes that “Most people fully recover from GBS, though some people have permanent damage.”
Churches that are planning to visit areas where there have been known cases of the Zika virus should take steps to prevent exposure and ensure they are fully informing those traveling with the church about the risks and safety precautions participants should take to lessen their risk of contracting the virus.
When Traveling to a Destination with Zika
The CDC outlines precautions and preventative measures that churches can anticipate and implement when churches travel to an area where there have been known reports of the virus.
According to the CDC, “The best way to prevent Zika is to protect yourself and your family from mosquito bites,” including:
- Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Sleep under a mosquito bed net if air conditioned or screened rooms are not available or if sleeping outdoors.
Although churches may require travelers to receive specific vaccinations before going on a missions trip, receiving a vaccination for the Zika virus is not currently an option, as the CDC reveals.
“There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika,” the CDC states. The BBC recently reported on progress being made for a potential Zika vaccine, with tests on rhesus monkeys of the early vaccine showing protection from the disease. While the BBC notes that scientists and military experts have said these results “mark a further promising step forward” in the search of a successful human vaccine for Zika, the realization of a vaccine for widespread public use is “many years away,” according to one prominent British virologist.
Churches should keep this in mind when they are planning for travel and should be sure that the individuals who are planning to go on the trip with the church are aware that they cannot receive medical treatment in advance to combat the virus.
In the event that an individual contracts the virus, they can follow the treatment options that the CDC outlines:
- Treat the symptoms.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Take medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or paracetamol to reduce fever and pain.
Before traveling, churches should determine whether their destination will be in an area where there is the risk of possibly contracting the Zika virus.
In order to determine if their travel plans will take them to an area where they may be exposed to the virus, churches can refer to the CDC map that can give churches guidance as they discern whether there is a high risk for their church members.
Countries in Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and a country in Africa have reported cases of Zika, according to the CDC.
Although a church may desire to travel in order to complete missions or other charitable work, the church must honestly ask whether the risk of exposing individuals from the church to possible Zika infection is worth the risk involved. Most importantly, individuals traveling to Zika-infected areas should fully understand any personal risks before committing to a trip.
For further help navigate missions trips and preparation, Church Law & Tax offers an affordable downloadable resource, Planning Safe Missions Trips.
Elizabeth Jackson is the editorial intern for Church Law & Tax.
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