A Liberian woman contracted Ebola in March by having sex with a survivor of the viral disease, researchers report. Using studies of both people’s viral genomes and of the people’s contacts with any other possible sources of the virus, the researchers conclude that the woman’s disease represents the first known case of sexual transmission of Ebola.
People ordinarily catch the often-deadly virus through direct contact with blood or other body fluids.
In this case, the two people had unprotected sex six months after the man got Ebola, and 155 days after his second blood test showed him to be clear of the virus. The genomes of the Ebola virus from the man’s semen and woman’s blood were not only practically identical but also different from all other Western African Ebola viruses that had been sequenced, researchers report October 14 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Also appearing in the journal is a preliminary report that genetic material from Ebola viruses can persist in semen nine months after infection.
Both findings suggest that Ebola remains in certain parts of the body long after the blood is clear of the virus. However, in an opinion piece that accompanies the two research reports, Armand Sprecher of Doctors Without Borders in Brussels notes that more than 17,000 people survived the West African Ebola outbreak. “If sexual transmission from survivors were an important means of disease propagation, we would have seen a number of cases by now,” he writes.