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Do we have a novel STD (coronavirus) on our hands?

Image Credit: Chicago Tribune 3 mins read

This year has arguably been the most surprising, not the least because of the coronavirus pandemic, amongst other threats the human race has been experiencing.  And each day seems to be a new learning experience with this virus. Recently, a news report on a study that tested the semen of some men recovering from coronavirus shows that the virus supposedly remains in semen up to 16 days after recovery. 

This discovery may be a game-changer as well as a head-scratcher! Its implications would undoubtedly alter the sexual practice of couples and other sexually active men and women.  Suffice to say, adequate knowledge on the status of COVID-19 as a possible source of sexually transmitted infection (STI) is still unclear; it beckons for more study.

Viruses and Sexual Transmission

A virus is a small (unseen to the naked eye) infectious agent that is capable of infecting cells in animals, plants, and bacteria. The kicker, though, is while these organisms are technically living, their life-support is dependent on others. Hence, they have to infect other cells to continue living. Now, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections (bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites) contracted through sexual activity such as vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and anal sex. Existence of STIs and STDs is not new.  However, because we do not know the full range of infectious agents, we learn of new ones and how badly they affect us from time to time.

But such new discoveries are most true of viruses, such as Zika, Ebola, and Marburg, for example. Interestingly, scientists found these infections persist in the semen of survivors for up to 16 days after recovery.  

How Infectious Are these Viruses in Semen?

So far 27 viruses have been identified in human semen. But, finding a virus in semen does not necessarily make it a sexually transmitted infection. Before this proclamation, a doctor would need to ascertain how long the virus can remain viable within the seminal fluid. Determining if the infected patient’s partner is vulnerable is just as important. The spread or quantity of the virus is usually a good indicator for ascertaining this. A doctor would also need to diagnose the severity of a virus; is it acute as in the case of Ebola and Zika virus or latent as in HIV or cytomegalovirus? 

First, determining these factors is imperative. Understanding the timeline of infection, possible effects to the couple’s reproductive tracts and susceptibility of a sexual partner is also significant in the doctor’s examination. These extrapolations also help determine the potential impact on an unborn baby, facilitating informed decision making; such as whether, for instance, Zika virus does infect neonates in the womb.

Moreover, one study explained how viruses could remain in semen without being able to infect a partner. Hence, the virus needs to be present and in sufficient quantity to cause an infection. In addition, new technological methods of diagnosing viral infections in body fluids ensure quick prognosis, drawing a full map of said viral footprint; i.e. the presence or disappearance of the virus. One of such advancements is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

What Would Change with Coronavirus in Semen?

Identifying a virus in semen has a lot of public health implications. Health advisories to couples include safe sex practices that would not put the other partner at risk. For instance, in the case of Zika virus, doctors advised couples to use a condom for asymptomatic men for eight weeks; this was of course if they’d returned from an area with ongoing local Zika virus transmission. For symptomatic men, the advice was to use it for six months after the onset of symptoms; this was also the case for male survivors of Ebola, per the WHO’s recommendation. 

With coronavirus, similar health advice would be the way to go. Couples should either use condoms or practise sexual abstinence for a certain period after detection of the virus in the semen. But such advice would be after medical practitioners have determined the infectivity of the sperm. But this might not also be solely related to sexual activity. The ability of the virus to infect unborn babies and perhaps even cause congenital disabilities would also have to be known for proper advice to couples intending to get pregnant as well.

Conclusion

Many viruses are sexually transmitted, with a significant number also causing known STIs. As a new infectious agent and one creating a ravaging pandemic at the moment, knowing that the coronavirus can persist in the semen poses a considerable risk as a new mode of transmission. Safe sexual practices such as the use of a male or female condom, abstinence, avoiding acts involving body cutting during sexual activity, etc., at all times is a wise decision until we learn much more about this virus. Given the precedents of Zika and ebola as sources of STIs and STDs, the mere discovery of covid-19 in the semen is enough to call for caution.

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