Pubic Health England (PHE) reported the news that there has been a first suspected case in the UK of sexual transmission of Zika from a partner who had recently visited a country with active Zika transmission.
Prof Jimmy Whitworth, Professor of International Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:
“News that one case of sexual transmission of Zika has occurred in the UK is not unexpected. Zika is mainly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is not present in the UK but we know it can also be passed on sexually.
“About 60 cases of sexual transmission of Zika have been reported worldwide, so we think this is quite rare. More than 250 UK travellers have been diagnosed with Zika, so one case of onward sexual transmission is not surprising. Discovering just how common it is for the virus to be passed during sex by a man or woman is a key focus for Zika researchers.
“Public Health England’s updated advice is also welcome. Zika virus survives in semen longer than other body fluids so recommending male travellers returning from Zika transmission countries, with or without symptoms, practise safe sex for six months is sensible. Recommending all women now practise safe sex eight weeks after travelling brings UK advice in line with the US and most other countries, although not the World Health Organization which recommends six months safe sex for all travellers.
“As the UK is not home to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the main risk is travel-related. This is highlighted by the news that seven pregnant women have contracted Zika while abroad. Pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to high risk areas until after pregnancy and consult a health care provider before travelling anywhere with active Zika transmission. All travellers should take every precaution to avoid mosquito bites and follow Public Health England guidelines on practising safe sex, during and after travelling to Zika affected areas. This will reduce but not completely eliminate the risk.
“It’s important to remember Zika infection is usually mild, and those infected may show no symptoms at all. The main concern is over the devastating complications, especially infection in pregnant women who may pass the virus to their unborn babies which may cause microcephaly and other abnormalities.”
Dr Derek Gatherer, Lecturer in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Lancaster University, said:
“With the number of travel-imported cases of Zika in the UK now topping 250, it was only a matter of time before we had our first case of sexual transmission, as has already happened in several other countries. We’ve always known that Zika could be sexually transmitted, but the fears at the beginning of the current outbreak that Zika could sustain epidemics by sexual transmission alone, and therefore spread globally, now seem to be unjustified. We would by now be seeing large sexual transmission chains in North America and Europe if that were the case, and it simply hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, travellers should not be complacent about the risks to themselves and their sexual partners, and should continue to follow the safe-sex advice when visiting affected areas and after returning.”
All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:
The SMC also produced a Factsheet on the Zika virus which is available here:
Prof Jimmy Whitworth: “Jimmy Whitworth directs the ERAES programme (Enhancing Research Activity in Epidemic Situations) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine which is supported by the Wellcome Trust to provide funding for urgent research during outbreaks.”
Dr Derek Gatherer: “Derek Gatherer has no conflict of interest relevant to the subject of Zika virus.”