Did you know that Zika virus can be transmitted through sex? During the ongoing worldwide Zika outbreak, scientists have learned that Zika virus can persist in the semen of an infected man for 3 to 6 months after he becomes infected. This was a bit of a surprise to people who thought of Zika as a disease only spread by mosquitoes.
This new twist has added considerable challenges to the efforts of public health educators and the media. What was once a relatively simple explanation (“Zika is transmitted through infected mosquitoes”) has become a much more complicated matter (“Zika is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes or sex”). And it seems to become more complicated on a weekly basis, as researchers study the epidemic and its effects in different populations and countries.
Fetuses are at greatest risk from Zika. Women who are pregnant should do all they can to protect themselves from possible infection by the Zika virus, which can pass from an infected woman to her baby in utero. If this occurs, the fetus is at risk of severe birth defects.
This is of particular concern when a pregnant woman has a male partner who travels to a place where the Zika virus is actively spreading. If, during his travels, a man becomes infected with the Zika virus (for example, via mosquito), he can then go on to infect a woman through unprotected sex, for up to 6 months. Since four out of five people with Zika infection do not actually show any symptoms, a man may be unaware he is infected. However, if the virus is in his semen, he can unknowingly transfer it to his sexual partner.
Practice safe sex for Zika prevention
Using condoms the right way can reduce the risk of spreading Zika through sex. Couples should use condoms correctly every time they have vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or they should abstain from sex for the entire pregnancy if the male partner has traveled to affected countries. For more information, go to https://www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention/protect-yourself-during-sex.html. A poster on how to use a condom correctly is posted at: https://mauiready.org/condom_instructions_13_languages/.
In our multicultural society, navigating the cultural and religious taboos about sex is not easy, but it is vitally important to communicate the risks, especially to pregnant women and those who are planning to become pregnant.
Back to basics
Zika does not discriminate and can also be transmitted to a pregnant woman or any other human through a bite from an infected mosquito. To avoid infection via a mosquito, we all need to “Fight the Bite!” Here are several ways to avoid mosquito bites:
- Everyone, including pregnant women, should use mosquito repellent;
- Eliminate mosquito breeding sites, both indoors and outdoors;
- Stay away from shady, damp areas; and
- If possible, avoid travel to areas where Zika virus is circulating.
For more information, visit www.CDC.gov/Zika.
by Rachel Heckscher, MPH, Maui District Health Office, Hawaii State Department of Health