Concern as Zika virus transmitted sexually

Experts fear disease could spread quicker and further afield after Texas case confirmed

TEXAS has reported a case of the Zika virus being sexually transmitted, fuelling fears over the rapid spread of the disease blamed for a surge in the number of brain-damaged babies.

With concern growing that an outbreak sweeping Latin America could spread much further, health authorities in the southern US state said on Tuesday they had confirmation of the virus being transmitted by sexual contact and not just tropical mosquitoes.

That is a troubling prospect for the US, Canada and Europe, where Zika had so far only appeared in travellers returning from affected areas.

Dallas health officials said: “The patient was infected with the virus after having sexual contact with an ill individual who returned from a country where the Zika virus is present.”

It said the virus had been contracted from someone who had travelled to Venezuela.

Zika, which was first identified in Uganda in 1947, causes relatively mild flu-like symptoms and a rash.

But there is growing alarm over an apparent link between the current outbreak and both a rise in birth defects and the crippling neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, have reported a surge in cases of microcephaly – which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads – since the Zika outbreak there last year.

The virus is spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, whose habitat is mainly in the tropics – giving temperate countries an apparent reprieve.

But sexual transmission would complicate matters.

A day after declaring the spike in serious birth defects in South America an international emergency, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it had created a global Zika response unit to contain the virus.

WHO expert Anthony Costello stressed there was no reason to believe the crisis would remain limited to Latin America.

“We know the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus . . . are present through most of Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly south Asia,” he said.

Underlining Costello’s point, Thai officials announced a man had contracted the virus in the country. Cape Verde and Indonesia also reported cases.

Yesterday, the WHO said reports that the Zika virus had been sexually transmitted in the US were a 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,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

“This is 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 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies joined the WHO in declaring an emergency and appealed for $2.36-million (R38.3-million) to support its response in the Americas.

French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi meanwhile said it had begun research into a vaccine for Zika, for which there is currently no specific treatment.

Developing a vaccine could take years, experts say.

In Brazil, Olympics organisers said they were concerned but downplayed fears – a day after authorities warned pregnant women not to attend the August Games.

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