Dating during the Zika crisis has added another dimension to the sex lives of frustrated Miami millennials, who say they now must deal with the “latest STD.”
They’re confronting it with a mix of fear, anger, defiance – and a bit of humor.
After authorities discovered 14 cases of Zika in his Wynwood neighborhood last week – a tally that has since climbed – Petie Pizarro, 28, sought to make the most of the crisis that brought planes spraying pesticides over his condo. He cited the ensuing drama in a provocative pick up line on the popular Tinder dating app. A friend warned him to watch out, noting the app’s reputation as a hook up site.
“ ‘Everyone has to wrap it up and be careful,’ ” she texted him. Pizarro said he’s always careful.
As of Friday, there were 28 confirmed local cases of Zika in South Florida, and nearly all of them stem from Wynwood.
It’s unclear how big a factor sexual transmission is in the spread of the menacing virus that causes neurological disorders in newborns, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun to signal its concern. It’s advising not only pregnant women how to have sex, but it’s also reaching beyond to all millennials and same-sex couples to remind that mosquitoes are not the only carriers.
We’re treating it like the only way for us to get it is by mosquitoes, and that is clearly not true.
Emily Nostro, 28, special education teacher
CDC officials know of 16 sexually transmitted cases of Zika in the continental United States, including one female-to-male transmission. While experts agree mosquitoes remain the main concern, recent studies indicate women may be more likely than men to be infected with the virus – possibly because of sexual transmissions.
The virus can live in a man’s semen for months after his symptoms subside. How long is unclear, but a CDC travel advisory that warns pregnant women to stay away from Wynwood also urges men there who display Zika symptoms to wait at least six months before trying to impregnate a partner.
“Sex is going to be a major player,” said Flávio Coelho, professor of mathematical epidemiology at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil and the lead author of a controversial study that found that Zika infections were much more common among women than men, likely because of sexual transmission.
Studying the results of 29,301 cases of Zika in Rio de Janeiro, Coelho found that women were 60 percent more likely than men to be infected with the Zika virus.
“The mosquito bites indiscriminately, men and women,” Coelho said in an interview. “If sexual transmission were a rare thing, you’d expect just as many cases of Zika with men and women.”
He notes that no such disparity exists with dengue, another mosquito-borne virus that is not known to be transmitted sexually.
The findings have been disputed by several scientists.
Julie Fischer, co-director of the Global Health Science and Security program at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, called Coelho’s findings “provocative,” but said too many assumptions were made without proper consideration of other factors.
“It does beg the question whether this is really women are way more vulnerable because of sexual transmission or that men who have asymptomatic disease or even symptomatic disease are not seeking health care,” she said.
Wynwood is one of the hippest sections of Miami. It’s become an entertainment hub for many millennials seeking the newest clubs and art galleries. The road into the former industrial neighborhood also includes prominent highway billboards and bus benches warning against the rise of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, pleas for the public to practice safer sex.
Twenty-five cases of Zika have since been connected to the area, setting off a wave of anxiety and fear across South Florida and political jockeying from Washington.
Those who haven’t shrugged off the danger have been rocked by images of predatory mosquitoes carrying sexually transmitted diseases, with the risk of having a microcephalic baby born with deformed head.
Regina Castañeda, 27, hangs out in Wynwood a lot, she says. A stand-up comedian, she’d been incorporating Zika into her stage routine as a way to defuse the intense fear permeating the community. She is trying to get tested for the virus after watching red and white splotches spread from her arms to her face and body.
She rails against the Wynwood “counterculture” that has denied the threat. One young man argued that her symptoms were more likely because of the community spraying, she said. The deniers, she said, are male.
“It’s 100 percent been men,” she said. “It’s like easy for you to say. It’s like exercising male privilege without even realizing it. You can’t potentially have a child. That worries me because those are the people who aren’t wearing mosquito repellant or protection. Those are the people we should be afraid of.”
Most of Emily Nostro’s friends live in Wynwood. She’s there almost every day. The 28-year-old special education teacher also wanted to get tested, but she couldn’t afford the $540 price tag and couldn’t get her insurance to pay for it – a problem for many in the community. Florida offers free Zika tests only to pregnant women. Nostro understands the priority, but worries there is too much focus on the mosquitoes and not enough on sexual transmission risks. On a drive to Wynwood, she points out the highway billboards encouraging people to get tested for HIV and STDs.
“People don’t realize how much of a problem STDs and HIV are in South Florida,” Nostro said.
The Miami-Dade region leads the nation in new HIV infections. It has one of the top rates of syphilis and gonorrhea infections.
Sex is going to be a major player.
Flávio Coelho, Getulio Vargas Foundation
Having another possible STD to contend with has health educators like Alex Moreno scrambling for facts. Moreno, clinical head of the program of the University of Miami Health System’s Promote to Protect program that links HIV-positive teens and young adults to care, said he’s arming his clinical staff with as much research as he can about Zika before school starts. In a way, he sees it as an opportunity to connect with skeptical kids who are tired of hearing about HIV risks, but it’s also alarming.
“It’s not just that mosquito flying around,” Moreno said. “Zika, as a virus, is completely different than HIV, but it’s another way of nature ganging up on us. That’s what scares me as an educator.”
Pizarro, a start-up entrepreneur, understands the risk, but also feels the local response has been a bit apocalyptic.
He’s not too worried. He’s not a pregnant woman nor is trying to get a woman pregnant, he says. There are plenty of reasons to use a condom and he’s always careful, he said. So, why not take advantage of the situation?
“Are you staying indoors avoiding Zika like it’s the plague or are you brave enough to go outside?” he writes one attractive brunette on Tinder.
He mentioned his plan to go to the pool.
The brunette’s response: “yeah, you need to choose . . . what’s more important – getting Zika or staying tan?”
She then sent him her number.