In recent weeks, general public concern over the spread of the Zika virus has prompted some questions about the Church’s approach to protect its missionaries. In the following interview, Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer, assistant executive director in the Church’s Missionary Department, discusses the issue.
Elder Schwitzer, tell us a little about yourself and your role in the Missionary Department.
I'm a physician who specialized in emergency medicine and internal medicine. As a General Authority Seventy, I currently serve as an assistant executive director in the Missionary Department and supervise the worldwide Missionary Health Services. I have also served as a mission president and area president and am very familiar with our missionary program throughout the world. I love these good missionaries. The Zika virus spread and its impact on our missionaries currently has our utmost attention.
What is the Zika virus, and what are the risks associated with it?
Zika is not a new virus. It was first identified in the late 1940s, originating in the Zika forest in Uganda. Over time, it has spread to South and Central America, the Pacific and Indonesia. We have even had a few reported cases in the United States. The infection is spread by the Aedes mosquito, and therefore, preventing mosquito bites is a vital part of controlling the spread of this infection.
When people are infected with Zika, about 80% of them have no symptoms. Once a person has been infected and has recovered, he or she then has immunity to this virus. In some areas of the world 50% of the population is immune. Symptoms of Zika virus include a rash, conjunctivitis (redness of the eyes), muscle and joint aches and fever. In general, the symptoms are gone within a week. Other than treating symptoms, there is no other specific treatment.
Of special concern, however, is the effect on the unborn baby when this infection is acquired during pregnancy. There is a possible link between acquiring this infection during pregnancy and the child being born with a condition known as microcephaly (babies born with a small head circumference). The Center for Disease Control recommends that pregnant women take every precaution to avoid mosquito bites when traveling to regions known to be endemic for Zika. There is no evidence that non-pregnant women who acquire this infection and recover are at increased risk for this complication with subsequent pregnancies.
Are missionaries at risk?
We want missionaries to succeed, to be healthy and to be safe. Every effort is made to instruct missionaries on best practices to prevent illness or accidents. The well-being and safety of missionaries is truly our first priority.
We do have missionaries in areas where the Zika virus exists, but missionaries throughout the world are instructed on how to stay healthy, including avoiding mosquito-borne viruses. The disease prevention principles are the same for any disease that’s transmitted by mosquito. We have been providing them with this instruction for many years. These instructions are being reemphasized in an effort to strongly encourage missionaries to follow the appropriate measures.
As previously mentioned, the greatest concern related to Zika infections has to do with pregnant women and their unborn children. Obviously, this isn’t something that’s relevant to our sister missionaries. There is no evidence to support that subsequent pregnancies or fertility is affected when the woman has fully recovered.
What is being done to protect missionaries?
The best approach is prevention. We instruct our missionaries on how to avoid becoming infected. Zika is spread through the Aedes species of mosquito, which feeds during the daytime hours. Missionaries are instructed to use insect repellent and to reapply it during the day. They are also instructed to spray their clothing with a solution that kills mosquitos. The best way for a missionary to remain safe is by consistently following these guidelines. We have in the past week sent out notification and reemphasis of these preventative measures to all area medical advisers. They will be working with mission presidents to emphasize compliance.
If the Zika virus continues to spread, would the Church stop sending missionaries into these areas?
We have had missionaries in areas with mosquito-borne diseases for generations and have consistently emphasized these preventative measures, which are also recommended by the Center for Disease Control. Those who follow the instructions they’ve been given are at a significantly lower risk of infection from Zika or any other mosquito-borne illnesses.
What message would you share with missionaries and the families of those who are serving in these areas?
For parents, they should be assured that we are closely monitoring this situation and emphasizing these preventive measures. Missionary Health Services are constantly reviewing the most recent medical literature, including the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), to ensure we are in compliance with their guidelines and recommendations. The health of their missionaries is absolutely our first priority.
For currently serving missionaries, it is vital that they be completely compliant and obedient in relation to the instructions they’re given by their mission presidents and their area medical advisers. Following these guidelines is the key to remaining healthy. Missionaries are a group of powerful and caring people who are sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with our Heavenly Father’s children around the world. We will do everything we can to keep them safe as they share their message.