Experts have warned that the Zika virus could be passed on through sexual contact in Scotland as it emerged a “small number” of cases of the illness have been identified in people living north of the Border.
Fewer than five people in Scotland are believed to have been diagnosed with Zika, which has sparked a major health alert in some South American countries and can cause birth defects if pregnant women become infected.
The vast majority of those with the virus will have caught it after travelling to an area inhabited by infected mosquitoes, which pass it on to a person when they bite them. However, it can also be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person.
The Scottish Government yesterday stressed that the disease “does not pose a public health risk” as it admitted there had been some cases in Scotland and said Zika-carrying mosquitoes cannot live in the UK due to the colder climate. Zika expert Dr Claire Donald, research assistant at the Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, said it could be transmitted sexually, even by people who do not have symptoms and are unaware they have been infected.
She said: “In Scotland there is a potential for it to spread by sexual contact. We don’t fully understand it but we know it is a much lower risk than from mosquitoes. There have been very few sexually transmitted cases and those there have been have mainly been male to female or male to male.”
More than 50 people across the UK have been treated for the infection, which is associated with a birth defect called microcephaly, which results in children being born with abnormally small heads and brain damage.
It is thought Zika only has symptoms in around 20 per cent of cases. Even those who do feel unwell often only suffer mild, flu-like symptoms, which disappear within a few days.
Guidelines state that anyone who has been infected carries the virus in their bloodstream for up to two weeks, but are warned to abstain from sexual contact without protection for eight weeks if they have not shown symptoms of the illness – and six months if they have felt unwell. Those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant have been warned to avoid Zika-rife areas, including areas of Florida in the US, where the Zika-carrying mosquito has been found. Some athletes have dropped out of the Olympic Games amid fears becoming affected with Zika could affect children they may want to have.” in the future.
Dr Donald added: “If someone was infected and their partner was pregnant, it would be safest to abstain for the remainder of the pregnancy. ”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We can assure the public that Zika does not pose a public health risk in Scotland, and of the cases in the UK a very small number have been found in Scotland. The mosquito that spreads the virus is not found in the UK.”