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Health, Science and Technology

Santa Barbara County Public Health: 'Zika is the new sexually transmitted disease'

CDC - James Gathany
An Aedes aegypti mosquito

In early August, Monterey County announced its first travel-related case of Zika Virus, marking a first for the Central Coast.

A few weeks later and Santa Barbara County announced a resident there has also tested positive.

Zika Virus is most serious for pregnant women.

KCBX News Director Randol White interviewed Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean about the local situation and what precautions people should take.

NOTE: This transcript was from an interview that was edited for time purposes and may not reflect exact wording that took place.

Randol White: Doctor Dean, how does your department respond when an infectious disease like this shows up locally?

Dr. Charity Dean: The Centers for Disease Control is constantly updating their recommendations based on new research. Literally every day, or every week, we are getting new information on Zika virus — on what it does to the newborn baby, on what it does to the mother — and that means new recommendations for testing. And so, it's our job at Public Health to really stay on top of that, and we are in — I, personally am in — daily communication with my partners at the state and federal agencies. And so, in this case and in any other case that we might have, our main role is to coordinate communication between all the different parties involved. 

White: Does having somebody with the virus here locally increase the possibility of the virus being spread through local mosquitoes?

Dean: The short answer is, yes it does potentially increase the possibility of local transmission in California. There has not been any local transmission in California from mosquitoes, even though we know those mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are present in 12 different counties in California. The closest counties to us are Kern and Los Angeles. So, in a county that has those mosquitoes present, the way that local tranmission would happen is exactly as you described: somebody who is viremic — in other words has the virus in their blood — gets bitten by one of the mosquitos and then 'boom' the mosquito is infected. That mosquito doesn't just bite one other person, that mosquito flies around potentially biting multiple people and spreading Zika.

(see also these CDC estimated "potential range" maps of the two types of mosquitoes that carry Zika)

White: Zika is not just spread through mosquitoes, there is a sexual component to transmission as well, correct?

Dean: There is! You know, Zika is the new sexually transmitted diseases, and this is a really important part of Zika that is not being talked about enough. I think the message is out there that pregnant women should avoid travel to countries that have Zika. The message that needs to be out there in addition to that, is that if a pregnant woman has sexual activity — and I'm including all different types of sexual activity with someone who's infected, male or female — they can spread the virus, and a pregnant woman can become infected through sexual activity. Right now, the CDC and many researchers are trying to determine how long Zika virus lives in the semen. It is very possible that this virus hangs around in the semen for six months, nine months, we don't know. We know that it's probably there for up to three months. And, another question is, does it stay in the semen of men who were symptomatic, or does it also stay in the semen of men who never had symptoms.

White: Clearly, Dr. Dean, pregnant women need to take precautions regarding Zika, but what about men and non-pregnant women, does the disease cause any long-term health problems in them?

Dean: So the correct answer is: we don't know. I'm always hesitant when I'm asked a question about an infectious disease that's still be studied to say 'no it doesn't cause that.' It looks right now, based on the data that we have, that Zika virus does not cause serious long-term health effects in non-pregnant individuals. In the majority of non-pregnant individuals, they recover, it's a mild illness and they don't have any long-term effects. That's what it looks like right now, but again, that research is still underway.