Dallas, Texas – As the third case of the Zika virus was confirmed in Dallas county on February 10, the United States and Latin America are left rushing to contain the spread of the disease.
On February 2, the Dallas County Health and Human Services reported the first case of sexual transmission of Zika. This came as a surprise for many public health officials.
The most common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis of the eyes. The symptoms of the virus are usually mild, lasting several days to a week, but recent studies suggest that it can cause microcephaly, a serious birth defect of the brain which causes unusually small heads and has lifelong developmental consequences.
Even now, the mechanics of sexual transmission are not entirely understood. “We suspect there is sexual transmission of Zika,” a Center for Disease Control (CDC) spokesperson told Al Jazeera, remarking that he was unable to provide figures or further information on sexual transmission.
Sexual transmission: a cause for concern
“Sexual transmission is a worry,” said Dr Anil Mangla, the assistant director of San Antonio Metro Health’s communicable diseases division, where two new cases of Zika were recently confirmed, adding that there was “ample evidence” to show that sexual transmission could spread the virus.
Mangla highlighted the great difference between Zika and West Nile virus, another mosquito-borne malady that had previously caused panic in Texas: “With West Nile, the human is a dead-end host,” meaning it won’t transfer further.
“However,” Mangla added, “if a mosquito bites a person infected with Zika, then they can transfer the virus to the mosquito population, which will cause it to spread through further mosquito bites, or a mother can give it to a child, as seen in Brazil, and then there’s sexual transmission.”
“The virus lasts for up to 10 days in the blood, but up to three months in semen. If people engage in sexual activity, they have to use protection. It is key [to protecting themselves],” Mangla concluded.
But this discovery came in a US state with a poor track record in sexually transmitted infections (STI), contraception use and teenage pregnancy.
‘We have a problem’
“We hardly need another sexually transmitted infection in Texas to tell us we have a problem,” said Dan Quinn, a communications director at Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a non-partisan, grassroots organisation of more than 131,000 religious and community leaders that works to battle the influence of the religious right.
According to a 2015 CDC report, Texas’ record in combating STIs leaves much to be desired: The state ranks third among the 50 states in number of HIV diagnoses in 2013, 10th in chlamydia, 12th in gonorrhoea and 13th in syphilis. The same report found that 53.8 percent of sexually active Texas students – who account for more than half of all students – did not use protection during their most recent sexual encounter.
In Quinn’s view, much of this is related to abstinence-only sexual education in the state. “In Texas, there is no law requiring that schools teach about sexual education. [The law] just says that if you do teach about it, [lessons] have to emphasise abstinence.”
Abstinence-only programmes teach that the only effective way to prevent pregnancy and STIs is to abstain from sex. Previous incarnations of these programmes have included material that Quinn says enforced sexist assumptions about women and men and included “gender-based stereotypes”. Quinn added that the programmes also took moralistic stances on premarital sex.
The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States quotes the 2003 curriculum of Worth the Wait (WTW), a sex education programme produced by Texas-based Scott and White Health, as saying condoms “can never protect someone from the emotional problems that can result from multiple sexual partners and premature sexual activity”.
Another review of WTW found that the programme misleads students on STIs and portrays sex as an “uncontrollable force”.
Abstinence against facts
Many studies, including those conducted independently by Texas universities, have found that abstinence-only sexual education has little effect on the sexual behaviour of teenagers.
Regardless of these findings, politicians at both the state and national level continue funding abstinence-centric education to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. In 2015, Texas politicians even defunded HIV prevention programmes in order to allocate a further $3m for abstinence education.
Republican representative Stuart Spitzer was quoted by the left-leaning Texas Observer as saying that “abstinence is the best way to prevent HIV” in response to criticism of the bill.
Quinn said that the TFN was in the process of collecting information for a new report, but suspected that “the overwhelming majority of Texas schools still focus on abstinence” in their classrooms.
With a new, sexually transmitted threat to public health looming, Quinn has little hope that it will inspire change in Texas schools.
“From a policy point of view, it would be remarkable if something like the Zika virus caused policymakers in Texas to change something that should have been changed a long time ago,” Quinn said.
“The problem is that we are lying to students by not teaching them to protect themselves.”
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