After discovering 14 cases of the Zika virus were contracted in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, the Centers for Disease Control, the Florida Department of Health, and South Florida's local governments raced to spray likely mosquito breeding grounds with chemicals. They also launched an awareness campaign about turning over flower pots and covering vacant pools to prevent the laying of eggs in stagnant water. But the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is relying on another tactic to combat Zika in South Florida: condoms.
This week, the global nonprofit unveiled three new eye-catching billboards. They feature a giant horizontal condom on a white background. "Prevents Zika Transmission" is superimposed on it. The billboards are going up near Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale International Airport, and on Marina Mile Boulevard. The idea is to remind passersby that a mosquito bite is not the only way to contract the virus; it can be transmitted sexually too.
"Sexual transmission of the Zika virus remains a significant mode of transmission of this devastating virus," said AHF president Michael Weinstein in a statement. "Any and all methods of preventing the possible transmission of the Zika virus should be promoted and shared with the public as part of a wider public health education and prevention strategy.”
Not too many people are aware that Zika can be transmitted sexually. In Florida, 351 people contracted Zika by traveling to a hot spot in Latin America or contracted the virus sexually from partners who had been traveling.
According to the CDC, the virus can be passed from a person with Zika to his or her sex partners through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Most alarming, a person who does not show symptoms (fever, joint pain, red eyes) can still put their partners at risk if they traveled to or lived in an area with Zika. That means anyone who has had unprotected sex with someone who has been in the square-mile area of concern in Wynwood is also at risk of contracting Zika.
From the CDC: "[The virus] can be passed from a person with Zika before their symptoms start, while they have symptoms, and after their symptoms end... Though not well documented, the virus may also be passed by a person who carries the virus but never develops symptoms."
It's currently unclear how long the Zika virus stays in semen and vaginal fluids and for how much time it is transmissible. The CDC is conducting studies to figure that out, though the center's experts do know that "Zika can remain in semen longer than in other body fluids, including vaginal fluids, urine, and blood."
The CDC is also doing research to figure out if the virus can be passed through saliva during "deep kissing," how common it is to contract the virus sexually, and if Zika passed to a pregnant woman during sex has a different risk for birth defects than Zika transmitted by a mosquito bite.
In the meantime, the CDC and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation recommend using condoms and dental dams if having sex with someone who has Zika or has traveled to an area with Zika. They also advise against sharing sex toys or having sex with people who might be infected.