Ebola virus survives for two years in the semen of infection survivors

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill have recently discovered that the Ebola virus ribonucleic acid (RNA) remains in the semen of Ebola survivors even after two years of recovery.

In a study that was published on Saturday, July 22 in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, researchers found out that even after two years of having been Ebola-free, male Ebola survivors’ semen can still contain traces of the Ebola virus RNA, prompting a suggestion to revise the 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of abstaining from sexual intercourse for at least a year for the Ebola survivors.

The study analyzed semen samples from 149 men who recovered from the virus up to almost three years earlier. It showed that 13 men tested positive for Ebola virus RNA; 11 of these men tested positive even after two years of the onset of the Ebola virus; and one of the 11 men tested positive even after being found negative for the virus at least two times.

Our finding of long-term persistence and intermittent detection of viral RNA in semen suggests we need to change how we think about Ebola as it is no longer only an acute illness, but also one with potential long-term effects,” said the study’s co-author and UNC division of pulmonary and critical care medicine assistant professor William A. Fischer II, M.D.

The researchers said the resurgence of the infection could possibly be attributed to a possibility that the Ebola virus may have hidden in certain areas of the body that remain undetected by the immune system, such as the eye and the testes.

As such, the men who were found to have remnants of the Ebola virus RNA in their semen complained of suffering from eye problems at a higher rate than male Ebola survivors who were found to not have a trace of Ebola virus RNA left in their semen.

UNC infectious diseases professor David A. Wohl, M.D., who is also the study’s co-author said the massive Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 to 2015 was a tragedy to the people in the region, but that “the scale of the epidemic has allowed for researchers to gain better insights into the Ebola virus, including the potential persistence of the virus in certain compartments of the body, such as the genital tract”.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola is a fatal virus that starts with common flu-like symptoms such as joint and muscle pain, fever, and headache and gradually progresses into severe diarrhea and vomiting, puncturing people’s blood vessels and causing bleeding from the nose, mouth, or rectum.

The virus is transmitted via the infected’s fluids – their blood, vomit, diarrhea, or semen. (Related: Ebola outbreak projections for the United States defy CDC’s false assurances.)

For many survivors, the physical manifestations of the disease have been compounded by the stigma encountered with their return to their communities. Survivor messaging regarding viral persistence, if demonstrated, must provide some information that can be used to protect loved ones but at the same time not risk further ostracizing by society,” the researchers concluded.

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