Couples returning from areas with the Zika virus should practice safe sex or abstain for eight weeks, instead of just four, to avoid transmitting the disease, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
Zika virus causes birth defects and has been linked to debilitating syndromes. Though it is primarily spread by mosquitoes, there is mounting evidence that sexual transmission “is possible and more common than previously assumed,” the WHO said in doubling its recommended abstinence period.
The agency said couples planning a pregnancy, while living in or returning from areas affected by Zika, are “strongly recommended” to wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive to make sure the virus has cleared.
However, they should wait six months if the male showed symptoms of the virus, because of its ability to persist in semen.
WHO said all men who’ve shown symptoms should practice safe sex or consider abstinence for at least six months and inform their female partners of the situation.
A Zika outbreak in Brazil has been linked to a serious uptick in the number of infants born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, raising concerns about this August’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S. Olympic Committee plans to offer athletes the right amenities and gear to protect themselves from Zika-carrying mosquitoes, though it will also distribute condoms to “for use with sexual partners for up to six months following their trip to South America,” it said in a recent letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded nearly 600 travel-related cases of Zika in the continental U.S., including a handful through sexual transmission.
“We did not expect that sexual transmission would be as common as we’ve seen it,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a recent address to the National Press Club. “We’ve had 10 documented cases in the U.S. We’ve never had sexual transmission of dengue or West Nile, but Zika can spread sexually. That adds a new level of risk and a new message that if your partner is pregnant, and you’ve been in an area with Zika, use a condom.”
So far, 168 pregnant women on the U.S. mainland and 142 in the territories have shown evidence of Zika infection.