We Haven’t Eradicated Ebola, It’s Hiding in Survivors

On 8 August 2014, the WHO declared The Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency after wreaking havoc in parts of West Africa. The epidemic was described as the most severe acute public health emergency seen to date. There hasn’t been another level four biosafety pathogen that has infected as many people, so rapidly and for so such a long time.

In June 2016, WHO declared the end of transmission of the Ebola virus Liberia and the Republic of Guinea. This declaration came 42 days after the last person who had previously been confirmed to have Ebola virus disease got a negative test result for the second time.

Ebola Virus Hiding in Semen

However, a recent study by Lancet Global Health found that we are yet to eradicate Ebola.The study involved Ebola survivors – a previously unavailable population. The researchers studied people who survived Ebola in West Africa and were able to get a much better perspective on the impact of the virus as a whole.

The study found the Ebola virus hiding in Ebola survivors’ semen after recovery. Through the Men’s Health Screening Program (MHSP) run by Liberia’s government, the researchers were able to collect data from semen testing results of survivors of Ebola. This is the first national program testing semen for Ebola virus.

The researchers studied a population of 466 male Ebola survivors. From the 466, they were able to identify 38 men with traces of Ebola virus in their semen. Out of the 38, there were 24 who had a positive test result for Ebola after 12 months or longer post recovery. This is certainly not good news.

The researchers were also able to identify rare cases such as a healthy mother who had no Ebola symptoms, yet she passed the virus to her baby through breastfeeding. The baby was later reported to have died from Ebola.

However, currently, the biggest cause for concern is the transmission of Ebola virus by sperm. The researchers believe that the virus lasts longer in sperm than other areas of the body. This is because testes don’t have a very strong immune system thus, allowing the virus to stay undetected longer.

Currently, the longest period that Ebola has been found to survive in sperm is 18 months after recovery. This is matches an outbreak in Liberia and Guinea that was credited to a man 17 months post recovery. The researchers say that it’s possible that the virus can exist for longer than 18 months, calling for more attention to such new studies. It’s also important that people in affected areas get tested for Ebola during routine STD testing.

Ebola Immune People

The researchers also had another interesting finding. A group of about 80 people in Guinea had contact with Ebola patients but did not get sick. This shows that they had an immune response to the Ebola virus, indicating that they got infected, but did not show any symptoms. The researchers say that are two possible explanations for this scenario. One, a small subcategory of people developed a mild infection and did not show full blown symptoms. Two, the subcategory of people are immune to Ebola.

The subcategory of people immune to Ebola is compared to another small subset of African people immune to HIV. Their T cells lack an essential component that is responsible for HIV entering the cell and replicating. Even after high-risk activities, such people remain HIV negative. The researcher wonder if the people who never showed any signs of Ebola could have the same mutation as the HIV immune subset. If that is the case, they believe that such people may be the key to understanding the method to stop Ebola infection.

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