By Samer Koutoubi, M.D., Ph.D.
Program Director and Faculty Member, American Public University
With all the new research and findings regarding the Zika and Ebola viruses, many are wondering how similar they are to the HIV virus. The latest reports indicate that the Zika virus is transmitted via blood, semen and saliva—so is this similar to HIV? Should you worry?
National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that the Zika outbreak is similar in some respects to HIV. “In the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it was virgin territory and very difficult to decipher what was going on.” Dr. Fauci said, “As we learned more about it, we were able to address it better.”
The three viruses differ in their methods of transmission. According to AIDS.gov, HIV can only be transmitted through direct contact of bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, rectal fluids and breast milk.
The World Health Organization is reporting that Ebola spreads through human-to-human transmission via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people. Ebola is also spread through contact with surfaces and materials (e.g., bedding or clothing) contaminated with these fluids.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika is transmitted from an infected person to another through mosquito bites. Another infection method is direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood and semen.
Fetuses at High Risk for Zika Virus Infection
The CDC reports that a pregnant woman can pass the Zika to her fetus during pregnancy. An infected baby may suffer microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. The full range of other health problems from a Zika virus infection during pregnancy are still under investigation.
Breastfeeding Not a Risk Activity for Newborns
There are no reports of infants getting the Zika virus through breastfeeding. Because of the benefits of breastfeeding, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their children even in areas where Zika is found.
Blood Transfusions Require Careful Screening to Protect Patients from Zika
Some countries report that patients contracted the Zika virus through blood transfusions. There have been multiple reports of blood transmission cases of Zika in Brazil; these reports are under investigation.
During the French Polynesian Zika outbreak, 2.8% of blood donors tested positive for the virus. It was also found in blood donors tested during previous outbreaks.
In the U.S., the CDC notes that there have not been any confirmed cases resulting from blood transfusions, as of February 1, 2016.
Sexual Activity Carries High Risk of Transmission
Unprotected sex (oral, vaginal or anal) is a well-documented, high-risk activity that can easily transmit infectious diseases. A Zika-infected man may transfer the virus to his partners during sex, according to the CDC.
From these cases, the Zika virus is spread before symptoms appear, while symptoms are present, or after symptoms are resolved. In one case, the virus was spread a few days before symptoms developed. The virus is present in semen longer than in blood.
To prevent the transmission of Zika during sex, people must ensure they’re using condoms and doing so correctly. Abstaining from sex is the only method of ensuring that a sexual partner will not contract the Zika virus due to sexual activity. Additional information is available at the CDC’s Zika prevention website and the CDC’s weekly morbidity and mortality report.
Mosquitoes Carry Zika Virus
Infected Aedes mosquitoes transmit the Zika virus through their bites. According to the CDC, Zika’s symptoms include low fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain and headaches. The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) for the Zika virus is not known, but is likely to be from a few days to a week.
The CDC, WHO and all affected countries, including the United States, have been very quick to react to the Zika virus. Public health communities around the world continue to work together to fight this virus and develop ways to address the Zika threat.
Zika Virus Poised to Create Significant Economic Effects
The economic losses and hardships caused by worldwide populations contracting the Zika virus may or may not have a long-lasting effect on the global economy. Given the slow reaction to Ebola and the lessons from our experience with HIV/AIDS in the past 35 years, NOW is the time to intensify our monitoring activities.
We must follow our internal protocols for monitoring any new cases, and educate the public about emerging diseases and prevention measures against these viruses. We should also invest more money into treating and curing these diseases and enhance our public health emergency preparedness programs to protect populations worldwide.
About the Author
Dr. Koutoubi earned his Ph.D. in Dietetics and Nutrition from Florida International University in 2001. He earned his M.D. degree in 1988 from Iuliu Hațieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Dr. Koutoubi’s research focuses on coronary heart disease among tri-ethnic groups including African-Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics. His interest is in disease prevention and wellness, epidemiological research, cardiovascular disease and nutrition, homocysteine metabolism, lipoprotein metabolism, and cultural food and health. Dr. Koutoubi has also authored a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals and written a book review. He served as the Editor-in-Chief for The Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine and reviewed manuscripts for The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Ethnicity and Disease Journal, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and The Journal of The National Medical Association. Dr. Koutoubi has also been quoted in national magazines and newspapers, including Natural Health Magazine, Energy Time, Well Being Journal, Northwest Prime Time and Natural Food Merchandiser.