ROME, Italy, Tuesday August 16, 2016 – The Zika virus has been found in the sperm of an Italian man six months after his first symptoms, twice as long as in any previously reported cases.
Doctors at the Spallanzani Institute for Infectious Diseases in Rome said their monitoring of the now-recovered patient pointed to the possibility of the virus reproducing itself in the male genital tract.
The doctors’ report suggests that the potential for the sexual transmission of the virus may now be greater than previously thought.
The infection, which is primarily spread by mosquitoes, is linked to the severe birth defect microcephaly, a condition characterised by small heads and underdeveloped brains in newborn babies.
The Italian patient began presenting symptoms including fever, fatigue and a skin rash during a two-week visit to Haiti in January.
On his return to Italy, follow-up tests showed the Zika Virus RNA was still present in his urine, saliva and sperm 91 days after the onset of symptoms.
After 134 days it was only detectable in his sperm which remained positive after 188 days, the doctors said in a report published this week in epidemiology review Eurosurveillance.
That was over twice as long as the 93 days after symptoms onset registered by a 27-year-old Frenchman whose case was highlighted in British medical journal The Lancet last month.
Prior to that, the record for Zika showing up in sperm was 62 days after onset of symptoms.
The Zika outbreak was declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier this year.
Current guidelines recommend that infected patients should use condoms or abstain from sex for at least six months after the onset of symptoms.
But the doctors said in light of this new evidence an extension of this recommendation might be advised, as well as the continued testing of semen after six months.
“The results of this study confirm that the virus could replicate specifically in the male genital tract and may persist in semen,” the Italian team said.
Meanwhile, Christian Lindmeier from the WHO said the report had the organisation’s attention.
“The Zika outbreak is a constantly evolving situation and every new piece of evidence is looked into and evaluated as to whether or not guidelines will need to be revised,” he said.