Like their heterosexual counterparts, gay men should take precautions by practicing safe sex if they have reason to believe they have been exposed to the Zika virus, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can be transmitted by sexual contact.
That’s the assessment of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is observing the risks associated with the mostly mosquito borne Zika virus as experts predict its spread to the U.S. this summer from South and Central America.
Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden have said Zika virus infection, which can cause serious birth defects when contracted by pregnant women, brings about relatively mild, non-life threatening symptoms in most people, such as muscle aches, joint pain, a rash, fever and conjunctivitis.
In some cases, people found to be infected with Zika virus have shown no symptoms,” Fauci said.
With the exception of people who are severely immune suppressed, such as organ transplant patients or people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment, Zika virus infections almost always resolve on their own without treatment, CDC officials have said.
“In general, there is no additional impact on men who have sex with men than the general population who are heterosexual except that we do know this disease – this infection – can be transmitted sexually,” Fauci told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.
“So the guidelines of sexual transmission apply to men who have sex with men as well as heterosexuals,” Fauci said.
He noted that those guidelines, developed by the CDC, call for men who have been diagnosed with Zika virus or who have systems of Zika virus infection to either refrain from sex or properly use a condom for all sexual encounters for six months. For men who have traveled to places where Zika virus infection is present but who do not have any symptoms of infection, they should refrain from sex or use a condom for eight weeks under the CDC guidelines.
The reason for the need to practice safe sex when men are exposed or may be exposed to the Zika virus is that the virus is believed to harbor itself in semen for two or three weeks to possibly up to six months, according one case study, the CDC has reported.
“So I think what you’re talking about with men who have sex with men –they’re like everyone else,” said Fauci. “They just could get infected by a mosquito bite. And if they do get infected they may realize that they can transmit it to their sexual partner. And that’s the reason why you’ve got to practice safe sex.”
Dr. Sara Henn, an infectious disease specialist and Director of Healthcare Operations at Whitman-Walker Health, and Ron Simmons, executive director of the D.C. AIDS advocacy and prevention group Us Helping Us: People Into Living, said their respective health centers don’t believe they need to take immediate action to address the Zika virus issue.
“Where the Zika virus has proven to be dangerous is with pregnant women,” Henn told the Blade. “So certainly we’re advising women who are pregnant or who want to become pregnant to avoid mosquito bites and to consider not traveling to areas where this has been detected,” she said.
“But there isn’t a lot of evidence that Zika is a real significant risk to men, even men who are HIV positive if their HIV is well controlled,” said Henn.
She said people with HIV with a CD4, or T-cell, count above 200 – which is the case for virtually all people with HIV on a normal treatment regimen – the Zika virus should not be a threat.
Fauci said the reports he has seen haven’t shown serious complications from a Zika virus infection even in people who have been immuno suppressed.
“Having said that, the caveat is we haven’t followed prospectively people who are immuno suppressed,” he said. “But if you look at what is going on in Brazil, where there is literally millions of infections we’re not seeing people who are immuno suppressed getting into any more trouble than anyone else.”