Recently, the Department of Health confirmed that the Philippines has its first case of the Zika virus contracted locally. Previously five people had tested positive for the virus but they all contracted it from abroad. The 45-year old woman from IloIlo who contracted Zika has not been abroad and was infected here in the Philippines.
The Zika virus is spread by a mosquito, through sexual contact, blood transfusions, and from a pregnant woman to the fetus she is carrying. Symptoms are mild and usually include a fever, rashes, joint pain, muscle pain, a headache and conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye or sore eyes). Symptoms can last for a few days up to a week. Only one in four people will show symptoms. The virus does not affect people very seriously except when transmitted from a pregnant woman to the baby she is carrying.
So why is the world so afraid of Zika?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can lead to microcephaly in babies. Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than the rest of its body. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that have not developed properly.
Zika virus infection during pregnancy has also been linked to other severe fetal brain defects and problems in infants, including eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth.
Safe Sex for Six Months
Recently, the World Health Organization recommended that anyone traveling to an area where the Zika virus is circulating should abstain from sex or use safe sex measures like condoms for a full six months after returning from that area. Of course if one lives in the area where the Zika virus is having an outbreak, the assumption would be that people should abstain from sex or practice safe sex indefinitely and for at least six months after the outbreak has been contained. Why six months? Because Zika virus particles have been found living in semen for up to 188 days.
This problem has the potential to be catastrophic. If the virus spreads in the Philippines, where condom and other contraceptive use is low, we will have a serious problem. Last year there were an estimated 2.4 million babies born in the Philippines. Imagine the public health crisis if even a fraction of these babies had serious birth defects because of Zika virus infection.
The Philippine Red Cross and the Department of Health have both issued directives and information campaigns about the virus but in posters seen in Palawan, the Red Cross completely ignores the fact that the Zika virus is also spread sexually, and the DOH only mentions the fact that it is spread sexually in passing. Both organizations have focused their information on the fact that the Zika virus is most commonly spread through mosquitoes. This is of course worth stressing, since every year millions of Filipinos are infected with other mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. But it must also be stressed that this virus can be spread through sexual intercourse as well.
Why not warn women about the health risks they potentially face and provide them the means to prevent pregnancy?
Sex is a taboo topic in the Philippines but we must not shy away from discussing it, particularly in the context of public health. The Philippines already has an HIV crisis brewing. If people continue to have low condom use, there is potential for the Zika virus to spread quickly. I cannot imagine what will happen to our health infrastructure if in addition to HIV, malaria, dengue and unplanned pregnancy, we also have to deal with an outbreak of Zika infection and potentially hundreds of thousands of babies born with microcephaly or other serious birth defects.
What do we know about prevention of the Zika virus?
· No vaccine exists to prevent Zika.
· Prevent Zika by avoiding mosquito bites.
· Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite during the day and night.
· Zika can be passed through sex from a person who has Zika to his or her sex partners. Condoms can reduce the chance of getting Zika from sex.
In summary, to stay Zika-free, one should avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes (this includes using repellant, using mosquito bed nets, and preventing the accumulation of standing water where mosquitoes can breed). People in or who have traveled to areas with the virus should also abstain from sex or use condoms, and delay child bearing until their area has been cleared of an outbreak. If you think you have Zika-like symptoms, see a doctor immediately.