Some years ago, when a biologist studying mosquito-borne viral illnesses returned from abroad to his home in Colorado, he became ill with fever, rash, joint pain and body ache. Soon his wife, too, became ill with similar symptoms. The children remained healthy.
The couple tested negative for malaria and other tropical diseases, and within a week their symptoms resolved. Only when their blood was tested for Zika did they learn they both were positive for the virus.
Yet only the biologist had traveled overseas and likely acquired the infection through a mosquito bite. Researchers wondered how his wife got the Zika infection. Upon questioning, the couple confirmed that they had sexual intercourse a few days after his travel, and scientists believe this was one of the first confirmed cases of Zika virus being spread through sexual transmission.
This story highlights a major shift in the thinking about the Zika virus. While we are well aware of the transmission of Zika through mosquitoes, we now need to know that Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact from men to their partners. In short, Zika virus is a sexually transmitted disease.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed what had been feared — that the Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain disorders. This has put many young couples living in Zika-affected areas, such as Puerto Rico and Brazil, as well as those traveling to these areas, in a quandary about planning a pregnancy.
The question I am most often asked by young couples who fear the complications of microcephaly (small heads and brains) in their newborns is, “How long should one wait before having unprotected sex with a partner who is returning from a Zika-affected area?”
The CDC recommends that if a man lives in a Zika-affected area or is traveling from this area and has possible symptoms of the virus such as fever and rash, then he should abstain from sexual contact for at least 6 months or use a condom. Why? Because while the symptoms of fever and rash resolve in a week, the Zika virus is present in the semen for months from men who have had a symptomatic Zika infection.
What if the male partner did not have any symptoms? Studies show that four out of five people with a Zika infection do not show any symptoms of the virus. At present it is unknown whether asymptomatic men can transmit the virus to their sexual partners. So the CDC recommends that if a man lives in or has traveled in a Zika-affected area and does not show any symptoms of infection, he should still abstain from sex or use condoms for two months after returning from travel in order to prevent any risk of transmission.
Women in these areas need to be extra vigilant about using insect repellent. According to the CDC, women may safely use Deet, a strong repellent, during pregnancy, saying that the risk of Zika is far worse than that posed by repellents.
All this highlights another major point: We still know little about the Zika virus and its complications, and the CDC’s recommendations are evolving every few months.
We do know that the virus is spreading to more and more areas. Presently, there are 43 countries and territories, mostly in South American and Central America. Experts say it is inevitable that the virus will spread to the Southern United States, perhaps as soon as this summer. Already, it is found in northern Mexico and Puerto Rico.
One of the greatest public health challenges will be to halt the further spread. For this the CDC requires more funding, which Congress has not released. President Barack Obama had requested $1.8 billion in February. Part of that is coming from money leftover from the Ebola virus scare.
The balance — roughly $1.3 billion — is a small price compared to that of treating the complications of the Zika virus. If successful, we will have alleviated fear and anxiety among millions of young couples in the Southern United States who wish to have a healthy baby.
Source: Commercial Appeal