The Zika virus is a virus spread by the daytime-active Aedes mosquitoes. First isolated in 1947 in the forest of Zika, Uganda, the virus is today an epidemic. It is problematic because it causes no, or only mild, symptoms. It can be easily confused with dengue and has no special treatment. As of today, the illness can only be prevented.
Recently, an unfortunate breakthrough was achieved in the understanding of the virus when a man was reported to have acquired Zika virus while travelling. He had shown no symptoms of the same and infected his female partner with the virus during unprotected sex.
This has led experts to believe that the virus is perhaps far riskier than understood. Dr John Brooks, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control said, “I think this case is very important because it reminds us that even though it might be less common than transmission from a person with active signs of Zika, it can still occur.”
This leads to the question of what to do to ensure that the virus does not affect your sex life or your efforts to conceive.
The most dangerous time to catch the virus is pregnancy. The virus is linked to neurological birth defects that hamper the development of the brain cells in the fetus. This may lead to a condition called microcephaly, which means ‘small head’. Babies with this disorder don’t survive in most cases. If they do, they have seizures and difficulty in lifting their heads and controlling their muscles. Even if the baby escapes microcephaly, the virus may cause brain calcifications, vision and hearing problems, and learning disabilities. The extent of damage remains unclear.
In fact, because of this danger, several South and Central American countries are encouraging their citizens to delay pregnancy until the outbreak is over. The World Health Organization and the US-based Centers for Disease Control have been recommending pregnant women to avoid travel in any areas where the virus is known to be circulating.
If the sexual partner of a pregnant woman is travelling, it has been strongly advised that safe-sex precautions should be carefully and properly used for every sex act throughout the entire pregnancy, if sex cannot be avoided. Safe sex should begin after the last known exposure. Precaution needs to be taken by both partners.
Even for couples that are trying to conceive, significant precautions need to be taken. Since it may be weeks before pregnancy is identified, it is best to avoid travel to areas infested with the virus. Dr Brooks said, “If you’re a couple and travelling to these areas, while you’re there, we recommend you consider using condoms, as you don’t know which of you might be bitten and transmit the disease and then continue practising safe oral, anal and vaginal sex for eight weeks.”
These eight weeks may begin from the time of departure from the area of risk for some people. For other people, the time may commence from the last time they had a sexual exposure to someone. Regardless, in both cases, prevention should continue for a full eight weeks. However, if the partner shows signs of the virus, like fever, rash, red eyes, headache, and joint or muscle pain, safe sex should be practised for full six months. This is because studies have found that the virus is known to hide in the testes, where it reproduces. At times the virus keeps becoming more virulent for up to six months.
If a couple is not pregnant and isn’t trying conceiving, should they practice the precautions above mentioned? Definitely. Every person who flies back to their country after getting bitten by the Aedes aegypti mosquito can potentially start a local outbreak. This is what happened in Singapore and in Florida, USA. It is, therefore, necessary to continue prevention. Mosquito repellents should be used and local communities can get together to remove mosquitoes.
Zika doesn’t affect babies alone –there is a neurological disorder, called Guillain-Barré, which can attack anyone who gets Zika. This disease hits the immune system of the victim and attacks the nerve endings, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis. Although it is rare, it is prevalent in areas hard-hit by Zika, like Puerto Rico.
As discussed above, no prevention is foolproof. There is always a risk of exposure to the virus. That should, however, not mean that caution is relaxed. It is important to stay alert and cautious.