WHO concerned by report of sexual spread of Zika virus

The World Health Organization (WHO) voiced concern on Wednesday over a report the Zika virus had been sexually transmitted in the United States and called for further investigation into the mosquito-borne virus, amid the current outbreak in Latin America.

The first known case of Zika virus transmission in the United States was reported in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday by local health officials. They said a person was infected with the Zika virus through sex. The unidentified person had not travelled but had sex with a person who had returned from Venezuela and fallen ill with Zika, Dallas County health officials said.

Sexually transmitted Zika virus reported in Dallas

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a statement saying lab tests confirmed the non-traveller was infected with Zika. The virus, which has been linked to birth defects in the Americas, is primarily spread through mosquito bites, but investigators had been exploring the possibility it could be sexually transmitted.

“It’s very rare, but this is not new,” Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Health and Human Services, told WFAA-TV in Dallas.

The CDC said it will issue guidance in the coming days on prevention of sexual transmission of Zika virus, focusing on the male sexual partners of women who are or may be pregnant. The CDC has already recommended pregnant women postpone trips to more than two dozen countries with Zika outbreaks, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Venezuela.

The WHO global response team will discuss the sexual transmission report among other issues at its daily meeting later on Wednesday, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told Reuters.

“We certainly understand the concern. This needs to be further investigated to understand the conditions and how often or likely sexual transmission is, and whether or not other body fluids are implicated,” Hartl said.

“This is the only the second mooted case of sexual transmission,” he said, referring to media reports about a case of an American man who returned from Senegal in 2008 and is suspected of having infected his wife.

The virus, linked to babies born with abnormally small heads and birth defects in Brazil, is spreading rapidly in the Americas and the WHO declared an international public health emergency on Monday about the condition known as microcephaly.

The United Nations agency, which is leading international coordination on the outbreak, said on Tuesday the virus could spread to Africa and Asia, which have the world’s highest birth rates, as well as to southern Europe.

In a statement on Wednesday to European member states, WHO said the risk of the virus spreading into Europe increases with the onset of spring and summer.

“Now is the time for countries to prepare themselves to reduce the risk to their populations,” WHO’s Europe chief Zsuzsanna Jakab said. “Every European country in which Aedes mosquitoes are present can be at risk for the spread of Zika virus disease.

“A number of travelers infected with Zika have entered Europe, but the disease has not been transmitted further, as the mosquito is still inactive. With the onset of spring and summer, the risk that Zika virus will spread increases.”

The WHO has not recommended travel or trade bans with affected countries, but says that it is drawing up advice to pregnant women.

“There are many things we don’t know about Zika,” Hartl said. “Lots of surveillance is needed … We have our team set up and are sure there will be lots of progress quickly.”

For now, the key in infected areas is to try to control mosquitoes and for people to wear adequate clothing, use insect repellent and sleep under bednets, Hartl said.

France’s health minister said two French regions in the Caribbean were facing an epidemic of the Zika virus, and the government was sending extra hospital equipment and preparing extra medical staff to combat it.

Marisol Touraine told reporters Wednesday that Martinique and French Guiana have had 2,500 potential cases and about 100 confirmed Zika cases since mid-December, including 20 pregnant women and two people suffering a temporary paralysis condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

A few cases have been reported in Guadeloupe and Saint Martin, also part of the French Caribbean. Nine people have come to mainland France with Zika this year, but Touraine said there is no risk of epidemic on the mainland.

She said the government will expand access to testing and recommend condom use in the region.

Pfizer Inc., Johnson and Johnson and Merck & Co. Inc. said they were evaluating their technologies or existing vaccines for their potential to combat Zika.

Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. said it had created a team to investigate how it might help make a vaccine, a day after Sanofi SA said it would launch a Zika vaccine program.

– With files from the Associated Press

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail


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