This news post is written to help relationships and sex education workers respond to possible Zika questions from young people. In the past 6 months, there has been significant media coverage of the Zika virus outbreak across Central and Southern America. The Zika virus itself causes a relatively minor set of symptoms in an otherwise healthy adult: 80% of cases are sub-clinical with the most common symptoms being a rash, fever and itching. A large amount of attention has been directed towards this virus because of the link between Zika and Microcephaly (a birth defect which results in babies having smaller heads and sometimes smaller brains than expected).
The Zika virus was first reported in 1944, was originally discovered in Uganda in the Zika forest, and appears to have spread around the globe eastwards through India, South East Asia and now Central and Southern America. In Brazil specifically, it has been spreading rapidly. The virus has a mild impact on a healthy body and currently there is no vaccine or specific antiviral treatment – just basic medicinal treatment to ease symptoms. Zika is most often transmitted via mosquitoes (specifically Aedes aegypti). These mosquitoes live close to the equator and are not found in the UK. Public Health England state there is no risk of mosquito based transmission in the UK.
People are only at risk if they travel to an area of active infection or if they have sexual contact with someone who is infected with the virus. There have been a handful of cases of sexual transmission of Zika around the world. In all cases, the infection was transmitted via infected semen of men with symptoms of the virus. The majority of reported cases have been from vaginal penetrative sex but, in April 2016, the first confirmed case of transmission through anal sex was reported. There is no any evidence as yet or confirmed cases of the Zika virus being transmitted through vaginal fluids.
So, if you are asked “Is Zika a STI?” acet UK’s recommended response is:
“Whilst there have been a small number of cases of the Zika virus being transmitted through sexual contact, we do not refer to Zika as an STI because sexual contact is not the main route of transmission. The main route is via mosquitos. These mosquitoes do not live in the UK.”
It is now widely accepted that there is a link between Zika virus infection of pregnant women and congenital neurodevelopmental conditions including Microcephaly. However, the probability of this risk is currently unknown. Public Health England, therefore, recommends that pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid travelling to areas of active Zika transmission, and use condoms with any male partners who have travelled to areas of Zika infection (up to 28 days after their return).
The Zika virus is a developing area of study and this advice could change in the future. If you have any questions about responding to questions about Zika during relationships and sex education sessions please contact us.