Destinations

WHO urges safe sex in Zika areas

AAP

Women in areas with the Zika virus can protect themselves, especially during pregnancy, by covering up against mosquitoes and practising safe sex through the use of condoms, says the World Health Organisation.

The Geneva-based United Nations agency issued recommendations on Wednesday for women regarding microcephaly and other neurological disorders linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus that has been found in more than 30 countries including Brazil, where babies with birth defects have been reported.

It did not recommend travel restrictions, instead suggesting that women consult their doctors or authorities if travelling.

More evidence is needed to confirm whether sex commonly transmits the Zika virus, WHO said, noting that Zika has been found in semen and citing a report of sexual transmission in the United States.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika.

Pregnant women in general, including those who develop symptoms of Zika virus infection, should see their health care provider for close monitoring.

But WHO was also somewhat reassuring, declaring: “Most women in Zika-affected areas will give birth to normal infants.”

Microcephaly is a rare condition where a baby is born with a small head or the head stops growing after birth.

It can result in developmental delays as well as seizures, hearing loss, vision problems and trouble swallowing.

“Early ultrasound does not reliably predict microcephaly except in extreme cases,” WHO said.

Zika virus has been detected in breast milk but there is currently no evidence that the virus is transmitted to babies through breastfeeding, it said.

The outbreak of Zika across the Americas has raised the issue of a woman’s reproductive rights including abortion.

“Women who wish to terminate a pregnancy due to a fear of microcephaly should have access to safe abortion services to the full extent of the law,” WHO said.

ZIKA: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

* How do people become infected?

The virus is transmitted to people through the bite of infected female Aedes mosquitoes, the same type of mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) said Aedes mosquitoes are found in all countries in the Americas except Canada and continental Chile, and the virus will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.

* How do you treat Zika infection?

There is no treatment or vaccine available for Zika infection. Companies and scientists are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine for Zika, but one is not expected to be ready for months or years.

* How dangerous is it?

The PAHO said there is no evidence that Zika can cause death, but some cases have been reported with more serious complications in patients with pre-existing medical conditions.

The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a condition in newborns marked by abnormally small heads and brains that have not developed properly. It also has been associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system.

* How is Zika related to microcephaly?

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly. Brazil is investigating the potential link between Zika infections and more than 4000 suspected cases of microcephaly.

* What are the symptoms of Zika infection?

People who get Zika virus disease typically have a mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain and fatigue that can last for two to seven days. But as many as 80 per cent of people infected never develop symptoms. The symptoms are similar to those of dengue or chikungunya, which are transmitted by the same type of mosquito.

* How can Zika be contained?

Efforts to control the spread of the virus focus on eliminating mosquito breeding sites and taking precautions against mosquito bites such as using insect repellent and mosquito nets. US health officials have advised pregnant women to avoid travel to Latin American and Caribbean countries where they may be exposed to Zika.

* How widespread is the outbreak in the Americas?

Health officials said Zika outbreaks have been reported in at least 33 countries in the Americas. Brazil has been the nation most affected.

Other nations and territories include Barbados, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Colombia, Curaao, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Maldives, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Tonga, Vanuatu, US Virgin Islands, Venezuela, according to the WHO.

* What is the history of the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is found in tropical locales with large mosquito populations. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Southern Asia and the Western Pacific. The virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and was first identified in people in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania, according to the World Health Organisation.

* Can Zika be transmitted through sexual contact?

Two cases of possible person-to-person sexual transmission has been described, but the PAHO said more evidence is needed to confirm whether sexual contact is a means of Zika transmission. There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted to babies through breast milk.

* What other complications are associated with Zika?

The WHO says because no big Zika outbreaks were recorded before 2007, little is known about complications caused by infection. During an outbreak of Zika from 2013-2014 in French Polynesia, national health authorities reported an unusual increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome. Health authorities in Brazil have also reported an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Image credit: iStock

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