Zika virus as a sexually transmitted pathogen

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Abstract

Purpose of review

Zika virus has recently emerged from an obscure mosquito-borne pathogen to an international public health concern. It is the first viral agent newly demonstrated to cause birth defects in several decades, and it is the only arbovirus now known to be transmitted sexually. The purpose of this review is to provide an overview of current understanding of sexual transmission of Zika virus and its possible clinical and public health consequences.

Recent findings

Sexual transmission of Zika virus has been reported from at least 13 countries without simultaneous mosquito-borne transmission; it is undoubtedly also occurring in countries with active arthropod transmission. Most published cases involve transmission from symptomatically infected men to women partners. Nevertheless, transmission from a symptomatic man to another man, from a symptomatic woman to a man, and from an asymptomatic man to a woman has also been reported. Sexual transmission has occurred before symptom onset, during illness, and after resolution of the source partner's symptoms. With the exception of a woman who developed symptomatic infection 44 days after onset of her husband's illness, nearly all instances reported to date have occurred within 20 days of the source partner's illness. Zika virus RNA has been detected in semen, saliva, blood, urine, and vaginal and cervical secretions; the length of time during which RNA can be detected varies widely across different body fluids but is especially lengthy in semen. Although semen has been found to contain ZIKV RNA for more than 180 days after illness onset, only a small proportion of samples with detectable RNA yield replicative virus whenever cultured.

Summary

Public health agencies have promulgated interim recommendations to prevent sexual transmission of Zika virus; however, much remains unknown regarding the duration of contagiousness and risk factors for transmission. Given the risk for birth defects, the greatest concern is for transmission of the virus to women who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant. To prevent sexual transmission in general, couples are advised to use condoms or not have sex for at least 6 months from the start of the male partner's symptoms or the date he was diagnosed with Zika or after he has returned from an area with risk of ZIKV infection. Women who have symptomatic ZIKV infection or have traveled to an area of risk are advised to use condoms or avoid sex for 8 weeks from the start of the woman's symptoms or the date she was diagnosed with Zika or after the woman returns from the area of risk.

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