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If the Zika virus and its presumed link to microcephaly wasn't terrifying already, it just got a whole lot worse — the first sexually transmitted case has just been reported in Texas.

The mosquito-borne zika virus was first discovered in the 1940s in Africa, yet most people had never heard about it until last year. Only one in five people infected develop symptoms, most commonly fever, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, a skin rash, and conjuctivitis. These symptoms generally last for up to a week, with most people getting better within days. Treatment, too, is straightforward. People are advised to rest, drink plenty of water, and use over-the-counter pain relief as needed. Hospitalization is rarely required, and the virus is incredibly unlikely to lead to death. 

Zika, then, was seen as a mild virus — not something to be worried about. 

In 2015, however, both Brazil and the Zika virus were put on the global map of health concerns, after the virus affected over one million people, and thousands of babies were born with microcephaly — small heads. The virus that was first found in Africa and later discovered in Micronesia is now rapidly making its way around the Americas, with more than 20 countries in South America and the Caribbean now affected.

The virus still doesn't make patients very ill, and there is still no conclusive evidence that it is responsible for the alarming rate of microcephaly cases, but the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency because of Zika on February 1.

Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia, and Ecuador are all advising women to not get pregnant right now, some even calling for women not to conceive until 2018. 

Zika Can Be Sexually Transmitted?

If that wasn't bad enough, the news just got a whole lot worse. Zika was previously thought to be transmitted only by mosquitos of the Aedes genus. Prevention, then, was believed to be possible in the form of avoiding mosquito bites: using a repellent containing DEET, sleeping under mosquito nets, closing windows and doors, wearing long-sleeved pants and sleeves. People not living in areas where the mosquito in question is present could choose to avoid traveling to areas where the critters were around. 

Now, however, a case of Zika that was likely not caused by a mosquito bite, but was rather transmitted through sex, has been reported in Dallas, Texas.

The Dallas County Department of Health said, on Twitter, that the infected person didn't travel to South America but caught Zika through sexual intercourse with someone who had been to Venezuela. The Pan American Health Organization has declared that more evidence is needed to confirm this case of sexually-transmitted Zika, however, the virus was previously already found to be present in one man's semen, hence, the possibility that the virus can be sexually transmitted seems likely.

This means that it may not be possible to avoid Zika merely by avoiding mosquito bites. Indeed, this means that Zika — and the dreaded microcephaly along with it — may be able to spread around the world a whole lot more rapidly than previously assumed. 

What can you do if you or your partner recently traveled to an affected area, or if you live in one of the Zika-stricken countries? The CDC has advise.

  • Men who have been in Zika-affected areas should consider wearing condoms during sex. 
  • Pregnant women whose partners have traveled to areas in which Zika is rampant should avoid contact with their partner's semen. 

A Zika Vaccine Is Underway

Though the Zika virus is now reaching very concerning proportions, there's hope in the form of pharmaceutical company Sanofi SA's recent announcement that it has started working on a vaccine. Its Sanofi Pasteur vaccines division will be putting its knowledge of similar mosquito-borne viruses such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue to use. While this vaccine could take months or potentially even years to develop, the end to microcephaly cases may be on the horizon. In the meantime, keep an eye on your public health organizations' advice regarding both mosquito-bite prevention and prevention of sexually-transmitted Zika.