STD Awareness: Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus

Zika

Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC

I first heard of Zika virus in an epidemiology class, when another student made on offhand remark: “Did you know Zika virus can be transmitted sexually?” Ever vigilant for material for the STD Awareness column, I excitedly scribbled the name of the virus in my notes. But upon further investigation, I found that there were only a couple of documented cases of the sexual transmission of this virus that no one had heard of, and decided there was no reason to freak people out about yet another potential STD when rates of more common STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, were on the upswing.

A year later, Zika virus was splashed across headlines on a daily basis, mostly for its newfound association with birth defects, but also in light of revelations that it could be transmitted by sex.


Access to condoms and reliable contraception is more vital than ever.


While Zika virus is usually transmitted by mosquito bites, the discovery that it can be sexually transmitted made it the only known virus that could be spread both sexually and by mosquitoes. It’s also the only known mosquito-borne virus that can cross the placenta to harm a fetus. Like several other viruses, including CMV and rubella, Zika is implicated in serious birth defects. But many health authorities worry that its potential as a sexually transmitted pathogen is dangerously underestimated. As of August 31, there have been 23 confirmed sexually transmitted cases of Zika virus in the United States — but sexual transmission will rise as the virus jumps into local mosquitoes, which will also make it difficult or impossible to tell if a sexually active Zika patient got the virus from sex or directly from a mosquito.

Earlier this year, sexually transmitted Zika virus in Texas made headlines, with many journalists incorrectly proclaiming it the first known case of sexual transmission. In fact, Zika’s sexual transmission was first documented in 2008, before “Zika” was a household name and the married couple who published their experience in a scientific paper thought they could share their STD status in relative obscurity. Despite referring to themselves as “Patient 1” and “Patient 3,” a science reporter quickly figured it out and (with their permission) revealed their identities in a 2011 article — still years before Zika-bearing mosquitoes would hit the Americas and trigger a microcephaly epidemic that propelled the virus to infamy. Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: Dr. Richard Carmona for U.S. Senator

The Arizona general election will be held on November 6, 2012, with early voting starting on October 11. After the many recent legislative challenges to reproductive health care access, both nationally and statewide, the importance of voting in November can’t be overstated. To help voters, Planned Parenthood Action Fund has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive health and freedom. Along with those endorsements, we are spotlighting our endorsed candidates in a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” To vote in the general election, you must register to vote by October 9 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2012!

When announcing Dr. Richard Carmona’s endorsement by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, President Cecile Richards said that “Arizona women need a champion who has long fought to protect and promote women’s health representing them in Washington” — and as a former U.S. surgeon general, Carmona is uniquely positioned to advocate for scientifically driven, rather than agenda-driven, policies on health and medicine.


“Health care should not be politicized.”


Carmona already has experience fighting for evidence-based health policy in an increasingly polarized political climate. After leaving his position as surgeon general, Carmona testified before Congress that the George W. Bush administration continually hampered his attempts to present scientifically sound public health policy when it conflicted with their political agenda. As Carmona said in his testimony, the Bush administration silenced him on many issues, including emergency contraception and comprehensive sex education — and the public was denied access to the latest unbiased evidence on important public health issues.

Carmona is running against Republican challenger Jeff Flake to succeed Jon Kyl as U.S. senator from Arizona. Flake’s congressional voting record is problematic, and includes support for an amendment to the Affordable Care Act to prohibit abortion coverage, support for defunding Planned Parenthood, and a vote against expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

As a U.S. senator, Carmona can bring his lifetime of experience as a physician and public-health expert to the legislature. When it comes to our medical care, no matter our political affiliations, we all need access to the best scientific evidence, and we need someone who will be a champion for our health in the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Carmona generously took time for an interview with us via telephone on October 3, 2012.


Many of us, including myself, are becoming increasingly concerned about the hostility toward science exhibited by some of our current lawmakers. What can you do to inject reason and scientific evidence into an increasingly politicized discourse about public health?

Well, first and foremost, if you remember my tenure as surgeon general, I had to do that. There was a lot of ideological, nonscientific-driven sentiment, and when necessary I stood up and I addressed the issues appropriately. It wasn’t a perfect world, especially when you have many of those ideologues thinking differently, but nevertheless, I will do the same thing as a senator.

And I think I enter the Senate with, if you will, the imprimatur of being a surgeon general and a trauma surgeon and a registered nurse and a paramedic. I bring all those years of cumulative science to the table as I discuss things with my colleagues. And although they may be ideologically driven, and I will certainly acknowledge their personal beliefs, that’s not science and it’s not fact. Continue reading