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CDC: Risk of Transmitting Zika Through Sex 'Greater Than We Initially Had Thought'

A mosquito on someone's hand
James Jordan
The Zika virus cases confirmed in Travis County were transmitted through infected mosquitos outside of the U.S. But the CDC warns that the virus could also be sexually transmittable.

Travis County health officials have confirmed the second case of Zika virus in the region. With peak mosquito season approaching, what should people be watching out for?

The latest case involves a middle-aged woman who contracted Zika while traveling in Colombia.

“We expect that we will hear of more cases of Zika. Again, it’s fortunate that there has been no local transmission,” said Dr. Philip Huang, Medical Director at the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

Both cases in Travis County involve people who contracted the illness while traveling abroad. Huang says there are 40 more county residents currently being tested.

“Many of these persons are say, pregnant women who had traveled to some of the areas where there is active transmission going on who have returned. Some of them have developed symptoms. The recommendations now also include that people who are pregnant who do not have symptoms but are returning can also get testing,” Huang said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of people infected with Zika virus don’t experience any symptoms. The most common ones include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, and they typically disappear within about a week. Huang says health officials are most concerned about pregnant women contracting the virus.

“What’s concerning is that the infection in pregnant women has been associated with these birth defects, primarily the microcephaly.”

The virus is primarily transmitted through infected mosquitos. But last month, Dallas County health officials confirmed the first case of sexual transmission in the U.S. That prompted the CDC to issue new guidelines on prevention, like practicing safe sex.  

“It’s become abundantly clear that the risk to people via sexual transmission is greater than we initially had thought,” said Tom Skinner with the CDC. Skinner says they’re now working with state health departments to investigate 14 reports of potential sexual transmission of Zika. Several of those cases involve pregnant women.

“We’re following all these cases, and of course if a woman is pregnant and she’s been infected with Zika, then she’ll be carefully monitored.”  

While both cases of Zika in Travis County were contracted abroad, the mosquito that carries the virus is native to Central Texas. And we’ll begin to see more of them as we approach summer. Dr. Huang with the health department says they’re not ruling out the possibility of local mosquitos becoming infected.

“So what would happen is, if someone who became infected in one of the areas where there is active transmission going on came back and was bitten by a mosquito locally, then that mosquito would become infected and could bite someone else and transmit the disease.”

There’s no vaccine or medicine specific to treating Zika. Huang says the best defense is to use mosquito repellant, cover up with long clothing and throw out any standing water around your home. 

Syeda Hasan is a senior editor at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @syedareports.
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