Federal health officials on Friday issued first-time guidance for couples planning a pregnancy if either partner may have been exposed to Zika, the tropical disease linked to birth defects.
The disease is mainly spread through mosquito bites, but authorities have come to realize that it also can be transmitted sexually. That Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously said that when a woman is pregnant, a couple should abstain from sex or use condoms during the entire pregnancy if the man may have been infected with Zika.
Now the CDC says a couple who are trying to conceive should use condoms every time or abstain for six months if the man had confirmed illness or Zika symptoms and was in an outbreak area.
If the male partner was in a Zika outbreak area but didn’t get sick, they should abstain or use condoms for eight weeks, the new guidance says. If the woman has Zika or Zika symptoms, they should wait at least eight weeks after the symptoms before trying to conceive, the CDC said.
The guidelines come from taking the current understanding of how long Zika persists in blood or semen, and then tripling the time for safe measure, said the CDC’s Dr. Denise Jamieson. “This is our best attempt at this time, knowing what we know,” she said.
Some countries where Zika has spread have suggested that all their women postpone pregnancies. El Salvador, for example, has suggested that women not become pregnant until 2018. In another report issued Friday, CDC officials said tens of thousands of IUDs and other forms of birth control are badly needed in Puerto Rico to help prevent unintended pregnancies during an outbreak of Zika there.
An estimated 138,000 young Puerto Rican women — one in five women of child-bearing age there — do not want to get pregnant but are not using effective birth control. Often the reason is they can’t afford it, their clinics don’t stock it, or their doctors aren’t trained in providing it, CDC officials said.
Experts say some of the problems facing Puerto Rico now may be repeated later this year in Florida, Texas and other Southern states where officials think mosquito-borne outbreaks of Zika may occur. “That’s one of the reasons” the CDC is highlighting the needs in Puerto Rico, Jamieson said.
Two-thirds of pregnancies in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, are unintended. In the U.S. mainland, roughly half of pregnancies are unintended. About 260 lab-confirmed cases have been reported in Puerto Rico during the current outbreak. CDC officials on Friday did not say how many are pregnant women, but previous reports suggest there are at least two dozen.
The territory last month issued an administrative order freezing the price of condoms, fearing sellers might take advantage of Zika fears to raise prices.
Medical investigators are trying to better understand how long the Zika virus can linger in the body. Some reports indicate it can be found in semen for up to two months. Given the indefinite length of time a man may be contagious, and the potential for outbreaks in the continental U.S., health officials are promoting longer-lasting forms of birth control like intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants.
In Puerto Rico, 68,000 IUDs, 33,000 implants, and many more other birth control products will be needed over a year, CDC officials said in the new report.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for nearly $2 billion in emergency funding for Zika-fighting work. Federal agencies are exploring other ways to get birth control supplies for Puerto Rico, expand public education efforts, and improve reimbursement and training for doctors in use of IUDs and other birth control methods, Jamieson said.
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