WHO urges women to cover up, have safe sex in Zika areas

A woman and her son pass by a spout with standing water, a potential mosquito breeding site, in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A woman and her son pass by a spout with standing water, a potential mosquito breeding site, in San Jose, Costa Rica.PHOTO: EPA

GENEVA (REUTERS) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) advised women in areas with the Zika virus on Wednesday to protect themselves, especially during pregnancy, by covering up against mosquitoes and practicing safe sex through the use of condoms.

It issued recommendations for women regarding microcephaly and other neurological disorders linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus that has been found in more than 30 countries including Brazil, which has reported babies with birth defects.

The Geneva-based United Nations agency did not recommend travel restrictions, instead suggesting that women consult their doctors or authorities if travelling.

More evidence is needed to confirm whether sex commonly transmits the Zika virus, it said, noting that Zika has been found in semen and citing a report of sexual transmission in the United States.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika.

“Until more is known, all men and women living in or returning from an area where Zika is present – especially pregnant women and their partners – should be counselled on the potential risks of sexual transmission and ensure safe sexual practices. These include the correct and consistent use of condoms, one of the most effective methods of protection against all sexually-transmitted infections,” the WHO said.

Pregnant women in general, including those who develop symptoms of Zika virus infection, should see their health care provider for close monitoring.

But the WHO was also somewhat reassuring, declaring: “Most women in Zika-affected areas will give birth to normal infants.”

Microcephaly is a rare condition where a baby is born with a small head or the head stops growing after birth. It can result in developmental delays as well as seizures, hearing loss, vision problems and trouble swallowing.

“Early ultrasound does not reliably predict microcephaly except in extreme cases,” the WHO said.

Zika virus has been detected in breast milk but there is currently no evidence that the virus is transmitted to babies through breastfeeding, it said. WHO’s current breastfeeding recommendations remain valid, in particular exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

The outbreak of Zika across the Americas has raised the issue of a woman’s reproductive rights including abortion.

“Women who wish to terminate a pregnancy due to a fear of microcephaly should have access to safe abortion services to the full extent of the law,” the WHO said.