The Zika virus, a disease that this week was declared a worldwide health emergency and is widely thought to cause birth defects, is now also known to be spreadable by sexual contact.
The Dallas County Health and Human Services said Tuesday afternoon it had confirmed a case in the county of the Zika virus “acquired through sexual transmission.”
The Zika virus, which had been thought to be transmitted only by mosquito bites and has exploded through Latin America in recent months, usually produces only mild feverish symptoms. But in pregnant women, experts fear it could be linked to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with unusually small heads.
“Now that we know Zika virus can be transmitted through sex, this increases our awareness campaign in educating the public,” Zachary Thomas, the DCHHS director, said in the press release posted by ABC News. “Next to abstinence, condoms are the best prevention method against any sexually-transmitted infections.”
There are known Zika cases in numerous countries outside Latin America, but in every case they have been travelers arriving from already infected areas and no outbreaks had been known to have occurred outside that region. But the possibility of human-to-human contact outside the mosquito’s native habitat raises the possibility of a worldwide pandemic.
“It certainly does add to the concerns,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.
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The Dallas County statement, which said the confirmation of the case came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered no details of the case nor specified what sorts of sexual contact had been involved.
It had been theorized that Zika could be spread by sex, but the Dallas case is the first known example.
The Zika virus has spread quickly through Latin America in recent weeks, which prompted Monday’s declaration by the World Health Organization.
More and more countries are reporting cases of the virus. Chile announced its first known Zika case Tuesday, while Nicaraguan officials said two pregnant women have tested positive for the virus, the first such cases there, The Associated Press reported. Government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo said the two women are each in their second trimester.
Chilean officials said the patient there, about whom they provided no details, was infected while abroad. Besides temperate Canada, Chile is the only country in the Americas where the mosquito that carries the Zika virus is not native.
The hardest-hit nation in the outbreak is Brazil, and President Dilma Rousseff said in a Tuesday address to Congress that “resources will not be lacking” to deal with the outbreak, which was first detected last year. Brazilian officials have even used military troops to spray mosquito-infested areas.
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The Capivari municipality in Sao Paulo state announced it was canceling its Carnival celebrations and setting the money aside for Zika prevention measures, including eradicating mosquito breeding grounds.
In a statement Tuesday, UNICEF asked for $9 million for anti-Zika programs in the Americas, saying the focus would be on educating Brazilians on avoiding mosquito bites.
The disease’s impact on international travel spread Tuesday as Swiss Air said female flight-crew members will no longer be required to travel to Brazil if they are “in the phase of family planning.” And Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline, said it would offer passengers refunds on all flights to Brazil and Argentina.