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Scientists Are Pretty Sure Survivors Can’t Transmit Ebola Sexually

Research suggests Ebola survivors aren’t infectious, but scientists aren’t ruling it out

These are a pretty good idea regardless. (Sandro di Carlo Darsa/PhotoAlto/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Not everyone who gets Ebola dies. Roughly half of the people with a case bad enough to show up on health care workers' radars in Africa have died—which means that roughly half of them are still alive. And of the roughly 10,100 likely cases of the disease in West Africa, only a relatively small fraction—some 4,900 people—have died, says the New Republic. Nearly everyone treated in the U.S. for the virus has survived. 

The oft-forgotten side-effect of all this: there are thousands of Ebola survivors walking around out there. 

Ebola survivors are people who have already been through the viral gauntlet and come out the other end. Their bodies have learned to produce antibodies to fight the virus, and they are now, more or less, immune to its effects. But there's a question for these Ebola survivors for which scientists don't have a great answer: might they still be infectious?

In a story for Scientific American, Dina Fine Maron writes about what little research there is on Ebola survivors' ability, or lack thereof, to transmit the disease through sexual contact.

Based on the research, Ebola virus has been shown to stick around “in the semen and vaginal fluids of convalescents for weeks or even months after symptoms of Ebola have abated,” writes Maron. “In men, one study found that Ebola continued to persist in semen for 90 days.”

Doctors have never—not once—detected a case of Ebola being transmitted from a survivor to a healthy person through sex. But they're still worried about it, says Maron.

Studies by Bausch and others have also detected live Ebola virus in sexual fluids that can successfully grow in cell culture, suggesting it could also lead to infections in other individuals. It is possible that sexually transmitted Ebola may have flown under the radar because there has been a dearth of data from outbreaks in years past. Also, although extremely unlikely, it is possible that mild Ebola—with very minor symptoms that were not recognized as such—has developed in patients’ sexual partners.

As it stands, the risk of sexually transmitted Ebola from a survivor to a healthy person is presumed small but can't be ruled out entirely. “With more than 13,500 cases currently in west Africa right now, however, public health officials do not want to take any chances,” Maron writes.

The best advice from the CDC and Doctors Without Borders? No glove (or other relevant barriers), no love.

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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