If you are travelling to countries with mosquitos abound, or are having sex with someone who has recently been to a tropical country, you need to be aware of the risks of Zika.
Zika is a disease caused by a virus that can be transmitted to people in various ways: by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito (the same type that also carries other tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue); from a pregnant woman to her foetus; having sex with infected people; and through blood transfusions (though this last transmission type still needs to be confirmed by ongoing research).
In reality, Zika is not a recent disease. According to the World Health Organisation, the Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda. Since then, 1952 cases have been reported in the subtropical regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2007, a large outbreak was recorded on the island of Yap in Micronesia. Later in 2015, the relationship between the Zika virus and the Guillain-Barre syndrome and microcephaly, was announced from Brazil.
People infected with Zika sometimes show mild or no symptoms. The mild symptoms often resemble those of other arthropod-transmitted diseases, such as dengue or chikungunya. These symptoms, which can last two to seven days, include fever, headache, rashes, infections, muscle/joint pain, conjunctivitis and general discomfort.
To confirm that the virus has been contracted, it’s recommended to check the person’s background (for example, if they travelled to an area where the virus is being actively transmitted) and to do a laboratory analysis of their blood or other body fluids, such as their saliva or seminal fluid.
Since the birth of babies with microcephaly was reported in Brazil, much attention has been given to the risks of pregnant women passing on the Zika virus to her foetus. It could be passed during pregnancy or even while giving birth (though this last method still needs to be confirmed by ongoing research).
Expectant mothers are advised to go to a doctor for close monitoring. Only in consultation with experts and following one’s own personal criteria, pregnant women with the virus have the right to access medical solutions and make certain decisions.
For women who are not pregnant but have the ability or desire to become pregnant in the short term, they are advised to find out the status of the virus in the area in which they live, learn about accessible reversible contraception and make informed decisions. The decision to postpone or continue the pregnancy is strictly personal – and it’s your right!
Zika is not only transmitted by mosquito bites or from mother to child. Studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States (CDC) indicate that Zika can remain in semen longer than in other bodily fluids, such as vaginal discharge, urine or blood.
This means that a person who has contracted the virus, even when exhibiting no visible symptoms, can pass it on to their sexual partner(s) through various forms of sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, oral and even with the sharing of sex toys. It’s generally recommended to use a condom if you are not certain about the infection.
Since no vaccines currently exist to prevent the Zika virus, the key is to protect yourself against mosquito bites. Follow the basic measures taken in tropical areas: wear clothing that covers the whole body, use mosquito nets, and empty or cover locations that can collect water, etc.
To eliminate the risk of sexually contracting Zika without abstaining from sex, the use of condoms – whether male or female – are the most effective solution as long as you use them correctly at all times. It’s also recommended to not share sex toys since they can carry infected fluids.