In June, a 38-year-old Utah man contracted Zika. He had not traveled to a Zika-affected area, and doctors ruled out both a mosquito bite and sexual transmission. The man had been caring for his elderly dad, who had been infected with the disease after a trip to Mexico. The 73-year-old father, who had also recently undergone radiation treatment for prostate cancer, soon died from organ failure. The son got sick about a week after tending to his dad. The mysterious case stumped scientists, but now they believe they’ve uncovered the depressing and terrifying possible source of the infection: his dying father’s sweat or tears.
Zika transmission through direct contact with sweat or tears hasn’t been documented before, and that’s alarming, but doctors cautioned that if that’s how this person got Zika, it is a rare and abnormal case. The researchers, who published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the dying father had extremely high levels of the virus in his blood — about 100,000 times the normal amount, according to the Associated Press. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why the 73-year-old father had such a high level of infection, but they suspect his past radiation treatment may have allowed the virus to replicate much faster than in other cases.
After the son became sick, he told doctors that he wiped away his dad’s tears and helped nurses move his dad, but he did not wear gloves while doing so, unlike the medical staff. None of the doctors or nurses treating the man got sick. A few relatives also were bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes on that trip to Mexico, but none appeared to come down with as serious a bout of the disease. Luckily, the 38-year-old man’s Zika infection also appeared to be relatively mild, and he recovered.
But, again, doctors cautioned that these are just clues in an atypical case. “There’s no risk of shaking hands with a person who has a typical Zika infection,” said one of the doctors who treated both father and son. So, hold off on the Ebola gear for now.