The dreaded and deadly Ebola virus can live for a year or even longer in semen, scientists reported in a study.
The finding means that men who have previously been infected with the virus could be a likely source for restarting epidemics. Ebola has killed over 11,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in a two-year outbreak that finally ended this year, NBC News reports.
Dr. Moses Soka from the Liberian Ministry of Health, one of the researchers behind the study, says, “Before this outbreak, scientists believed that Ebola virus could be found in semen for three months after recovery.” He adds,
With this study, we now know that virus may persist for a year or longer.
Before Ebola spread in West Africa, the virus was seen only in small, isolated outbreaks that killed a few hundred, at most. There was no information that the virus was able to linger in the bodies of survivors.
The previous Ebola epidemic had infected more than 28,000 people before it was controlled. But recent outbreaks — the latest this March — have been caused by sexual transmission from male Ebola survivors, scientists confirm.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the fresh outbreak was in Guinea, traced to a man who had recovered 15 months ago from the virus. He had sexually infected a woman, and Ebola spread to 13 more people, nine of whom died.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said that this persistence of the virus in semen means “a risk of cases for years to come.” He adds that it is important to keep doing research on Ebola to fortify against it. “We don’t want to see this come roaring back after all the hard work and after all the lives that have been lost,” he says.
The CDC is one of several health organizations working to improve the public health systems in West African countries so that local governments can better detect Ebola and other diseases before they spread.
A research team in Liberia examined 429 male Ebola survivors. They discovered that 9% of them had traces of Ebola in their semen even after a year since recovery. In one man, it had been 565 days since his recovery, the CDC stated.
Men older than 40 were at a higher risk than younger men to have Ebola lingering in their semen, according to the researchers.
Agencies in the United States are helping test a new drug called GS-5734 in hopes that it can clear Ebola from survivor’s bodily fluids. The drug, created by Gilead Sciences, has protected animals against the virus and has proved safe in early human trials.
The World Health Organization recommends that Ebola survivors abstain from any sexual activity for three months after recovery, or use a condom. Ebola spreads through bodily fluid, including blood, sweat, vomit, diarrhea and semen. Infections happen in close, prolonged contact, putting caregivers and people who work with bodies infected with the virus at the highest risk.
Ebola can also linger in other body parts deemed immune privileged, such as the eyes, spinal cord, and others.
The study was published in the Lancet Global Health.