Ebola survivor study finds evidence of virus in semen more than two years after illness

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Prolonged persistence of virus has personal, public health, research implications

A Liberia-based study published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases has found evidence of Ebola in the semen of 11 of 137 Ebola survivors who donated samples more than two years after the onset of their illness. The study followed 149 survivors of the 2013 – 2016 West Africa outbreak who provided semen samples at least once, with the virus detected among 13 of them, or 9 percent.

In addition, researchers found that detection of the virus could be intermittent, with eight of the men providing samples that tested negative, followed by a later sample that tested positive for evidence of Ebola. Men whose semen tested positive for the virus were older, with a median age among them of 42, and a median age across the group as a whole of 32. In addition, those with evidence of the virus in their semen were likelier to report vision problems as well as fatigue, than men without evidence of the virus, although reports of other symptoms associated with aftereffects of Ebola, including headaches, muscle and joint pain and numbness in hands and feet were evenly distributed.

The findings suggest further research into the role of age-related immune system deterioration in viral persistence, and into the possibility that eyes and testes offer a place for viable virus to hide, the authors, led by Dr. William Fischer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, write. The findings also offer a challenge, they note, to integrate accurate messages about risks of sexual transmission into community education, without adding to burdens of stigma and isolation already experienced by survivors of the virus.

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