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by Matt Alderton | February 10, 2016
It might start with a fever, rash, or headache. From there, it could manifest as joint pain, muscle aches, or red eyes. Usually, though, there are no symptoms at all -- which means Zika virus for most people is considered harmless.

One notable exception is pregnant women. For them, Zika virus can be devastating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says the mosquito-borne illness has been linked to increased incidences of brain damage and birth defects in newborns.

Zika's potential risk to pregnant women has caused meeting professionals to scrutinize plans for events in the 23 countries and territories where Zika virus has been reported. Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, CMM, global general manager for Latin America at Maritz Travel Co. and former executive director of meetings for the Mexico Tourism Board, told Incentive sister publication Successful Meetings in a conversation this week that information -- not panic -- is the best medicine for meetings in Zika-prone areas.

You've no doubt been in touch with your colleagues and contacts in Latin America regarding Zika virus. What can you share about the current state of the outbreak and what the situation looks like on the ground?

We have certainly been monitoring the developments of the Zika virus and its impact on our clients. We are looking to the experts -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization -- to share this information with our clients when concerns arise.

All of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are privileging health considerations, both for citizens and travelers following the guidelines of the WHO recommending specific precautions for travelers when they visit places where Zika virus has developed. As you know, specific areas where Zika virus is ongoing are difficult to determine and change over time. Having said that, there are currently no travel or trade bans to the region.
 
As you indicated, conditions are constantly changing. Is it a mistake, therefore, to generalize about the region as a whole?

The diversity and versatility of the ecosystems, weather conditions, and demographic composition in Latin America is very wide, so you are right; it is a mistake to generalize.

However, the CDC has a detailed country-by-country assessment about the precautions to be taken in places where mosquitoes have been infected by Zika. Being in the meetings and travel industry for some time, we have experienced these kind of situations and the best thing to do is to follow the advice of global specialized organizations [like the] CDC and WHO. In this case, only enhanced precautions for travelers have been issued.
 
What are officials in the region doing to control and/or address the outbreak?

All of the tourism boards and DMOs in the region are following global protocols and building teams with local health authorities to guarantee sharing the best information possible to current and potential clients both in the leisure and meetings markets.
 
Are groups cancelling meetings and events in the region because of Zika virus? If not, is there concern that they will?

At the moment, we are not seeing cancellations. Only a handful of individuals with specific medical concerns. If health and communication protocol is managed properly, always prioritizing health precautions, potential risks can be diminished.
 
What precautions should meeting professionals take to mitigate the risk that Zika virus represents to their meetings and attendees?

Timely information and communication processes are key. As you may already know, Maritz Travel/Experient has extensive plans in place in order to be responsive to health and safety concerns, which include an emergency management/response team as well as communications protocol between onsite operations personnel and in-house resources. Also, appropriate communications with travel guests.
 
Likewise, what precautions should attendees take?

There are specific recommendations on most DMOs' websites based on WHO's guidelines, like wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants when traveling to some warm/tropical destinations, using EPA-registered insect repellents, trying to stay/sleep in air conditioned rooms, drinking bottled water, etc.

Meeting professionals are understandably concerned. Which is better advice, in your estimation: Change your plans, just in case? Or, proceed with caution?

We respect the clients' decision, as it is their primary responsibility to decide whether to postpone or change the location of a program. However, we would gladly assist with program modifications if needed. My advice would be always to continue monitoring global official sources and stick to health authorities' recommendations.

Even if they're comfortable proceeding with their meeting, planners may face pressure from reactive attendees. How can meeting professionals manage attendees' concerns?  

Again, information is the key. Having recovery procedures and comprehensive emergency plans in place gives attendees the guarantee that we all -- industry players and destinations -- will have security and health of people involved as a priority.
 
What questions should planners be asking CVBs, DMCs, venues, and other partners in the region to ensure that they are, in fact, prepared?

I think they should ask questions about weather, transportation means, health conditions of the places to visit, recommendations on precautions to take, etc.