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We have recently seen questions circulating on social media about whether COVID-19 can be transmitted through sexual contact. This explainer document is designed to help you understand the current research and answer this question for your audience.
As approaches to sexual contact are inherently cultural, it is important to ensure you localize any information given to ensure it is appropriate and meets the information needs of your audience.
Where did this rumour come from?
Researchers in China discovered traces of SARS-CoV-2 in the semenof patients with COVID-19 and those who had recovered. This sparked concerns that COVID-19 could potentially be spread through sexual contact.
It is important to note that this research had a relatively small sample size, just 38 participants. Twenty-three of these patients had recovered and 15 patients were still ill with COVID-19. They found traces of SARS-CoV-2 in the semen of just four of the patients who were still sick with COVID-19, and two who had recovered.
Researchers did not follow up with the participants to determine how long the coronavirus stayed in their semen or whether the men had spread it to their sexual partners.
Earlier studies (full paper here) in China didn’t find any traces of the virus in semen of men who had tested positive. However, just because the virus was not detected in the semen samples does not necessarily mean that the virus did not enter or impact the function of the testes. Investigators said more research is needed to determine the interactions between COVID-19 and the male reproductive function.
We know that the virus can be spread through fecal-oral transmission (hence the importance of handwashing after using the toilet) but the CDC says it is unknown whether the virus can spread through vomit, urine, and breast milk.
Other viruses, such as Ebola and Zika, can be sexually transmitted.
Does this mean COVID-19 is sexually transmitted?
It’s important to understand that while the virus was found in a small sample size of semen in this particular study, this does not necessarily mean that the virus itself is transmitted sexually.
When you have a viral infection of any kind, it circulates through your body, leaving behind small traces in bodily fluids such as saliva, urine, and semen. Infectious viruses commonly are found in semen, with Zika being one recent notable example. The Chinese researchers noted that 27 different viruses have been detected in human semen.
In short, there is no evidence at this stage that COVID-19 is a sexually transmitted infection, i.e. it does not appear to be transmitted through intercourse, BUT there is a significant risk of passing on COVID-19 through kissing, physical touching and the very fact that intercourse requires partners to be physically close to one another.
Is it safe to have sexual contact with someone who has COVID-19?
We know the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted during close contact. COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets when a person is in close contact with someone who has respiratory symptoms, like coughing or sneezing. It is likely that it could also be spread through kissing.
Being in close contact with anyone, whether you are reading a book, or having sex, will increase your risk of catching the virus. So while the fluids involved in sexual contact may not be infectious, close contact is enough to increase your risk.
If you live with your sexual partner, husband, or wife, you are already in close contact, so it is unlikely that sexual activity will increase your risk of spreading the virus between the two of you.
If you’re having sex with casual partners, good hygiene including handwashing before and after can help prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. But as many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, meaning they do not have obvious symptoms, it can be difficult to determine whether close contact with another person is safe.
Try to avoid contact (of all kinds) and seek testing if you or your partner are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19 or you believe you may have been in contact with someone who is a confirmed case.
Symptoms of COVID-19:
• flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and fatigue
• shortness of breath
How can I report on this issue?
As with many issues surrounding this virus, it is a good idea to focus on the practical actions someone can take to protect themselves. As we know from several other disease outbreaks and pandemics, simply the knowledge that COVID-19 is, or is not transmitted sexually will not impact the sexual choices of some people.
- Reinforce the importance of good hygiene – No matter what you’re doing, good hygiene is an important defense against the spread of the virus.
- Give practical advice for physical distancing that fits your context – Not everyone has the luxury of space to keep distant from others. Most forms of intimacy require a closer distance than the 2 metres of separation recommended by the World Health Organization. This does not mean couples should isolate themselves and stop being intimate at all. If both are healthy and feeling well, are practicing social distancing and have had no known exposure to anyone with COVID-19, touching, hugging, kissing, and sex are more likely to be safe.
What are the practical suggestions you can give to help your audience adapt?
- Point out that there is no evidence that masturbation spreads coronavirus, especially if you wash your hands;
- The current guidance is not to have sex with or kiss anyone outside of your household. If you do, it is important to limit it to as few partners as possible. Remember close sexual contact with anyone outside your household can put you and others at risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19.
- Your audience might also be sex workers and it is worth considering to advise them to take a break from physical and face-to face interactions and consider using video dates, sexting or chat rooms. Make sure to tell them to disinfect keyboards and touch screens that they share with others.
- Consider forms of arousal that don’t involve physical contact – like suggestion and talking.
- If you are using contraception, be aware that some regular public health services are disrupted during COVID-19. Make time to find out about any changes in contraception services and get hold of supplies before having unprotected sex, if you want to avoid pregnancy.
- If anal sex is discussed on the media in your context, you should make a specific mention that condoms are recommended for anal sex.
In periods of crisis, your readers and viewers also need consoling. Tell them that it’s also normal if they are not in the mood for sex. People have different psychological responses to stress. If living through a pandemic has dampened their sexual desire, it will return once life returns to normal.
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