Brain and Body

It’s Official: Ebola Can Be Sexually Transmitted

October 20, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Medics from across teh NHS practise in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Photo credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

The first case of a woman getting ebola through sexual contact has been confirmed.

Cue the global panic. The news is out that a Liberian woman contracted the Ebola virus after getting intimate with a survivor of the disease. The couple had sex six months after the male was first infected with Ebola — and now, after witnessing the surprising tenacity of the disease, health officials have changed the guidelines that previously recommended that Ebola survivors abstain from sex for just three months.

155 days after a blood test confirmed that the man was clear of the Ebola virus, the couple had unprotected sex, unknowing that genetic material from Ebola was still hiding in his semen. Now researchers have determined that Ebola can linger in semen for a stubborn nine months after infection. It’s a shame this wasn’t known before the couple had intercourse, because the unfortunate woman contracted the virus 30 days after Liberia had been declared Ebola-free.

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Through genetic analysis, researchers determined that the woman couldn’t have gotten the disease any other way since the man and woman had copies of the virus that were genetically identical, and also different from all of the other Western African Ebola viruses that were sequenced.

In one of the Ebola studies, researchers analyzed semen samples of 93 male Ebola survivors. All men tested positive for the disease in the first three months of having the disease, over half tested positive between four to six months, and one quarter tested positive between seven to nine months after the start of the illness.

It’s still unclear why some men are able to clear the virus faster than others, but the only good news is that sexual transmission of the disease is rare — there are fewer than 20 suspected occurrences of sexually transmitted Ebola out of over 17,000 survivors.

But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines saying that, until more is known about how Ebola can be sexually transmitted, the 8,000 male Ebola survivors in West Africa must be regularly tested to monitor the virus in their semen. “Until a male Ebola survivor’s semen has twice tested negative, he should abstain from all types of sex or use condoms when engaging in sexual activity. Hands should be washed after any physical contact with semen,” the CDC stated.

Despite the panic associated with Ebola, Armand Sprecher from Doctors Without Borders urges the public to refrain from further stigmatizing infected people and survivors. “Let us not forget that survivors have already endured a painful severe illness, and many emerge from it to find that friends and family members have died,” he writes. “If they are then treated as pariahs and threats, we add a terrible unkindness on top of their suffering. They should be treated with all the compassion we can muster.”

Hopefully scientists will not only further study the disease, but work to develop safer guidelines to educate the people in affected communities. Tragically, the woman in question did not survive the infection, and her death not only tugs at the heart strings but also sends a clear message that we have a lot to learn about Ebola.

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