Traces of Ebola Virus Linger Longer than Expected in Semen

Tests conducted in Liberia cannot determine if the virus is live or capable of spreading

Traces of Ebola Virus Linger Longer than Expected in Semen
Image: Pexels
August 31, 2016

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are reporting that tests conducted as part of a Liberian health program have revealed the persistent presence of Ebola in the semen of male survivors as many as 565 days after recovery.

The initial data showed that about nine percent of 429 male survivors tested for the virus still had pieces of it present in their semen. Out of those 38 men, 63 percent tested positive one year after recovery, and one man tested positive at least 565 days after he recovered. Men over the age of 40 were more likely to test positive for the virus than those under that age.

Liberia's Men's Health Screening Program (MHSP) is the first national semen testing program for Ebola, and it is currently the largest analysis studying persistence of the virus in male survivors. However, although the tests detect the virus's genetic material, they cannot tell if it is live or able to spread the disease.

"This program provides important insights into how long Ebola remains in semen, a key component to preventing flare-ups of the disease and protecting survivors and their loved ones," commented CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "It also shows how investments in public health capacity can save lives."

The MHSP—which is run by the Liberian Ministry of Health together with the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Academic Consortium Combating Ebola in Liberia—also provides counseling and education on safe sex practices. The study conducted by the program shows that it led to a significant increase in the number of men who report either using a condom or remaining abstinent. Almost 75 percent of the participants who had admitted to having sex without condoms while enrolling in the program later reported using condoms during subsequent sexual activity.

Male survivors of Ebola who are 15 or older may enroll in the MHSP and receive monthly semen testing. They "graduate" after receiving two consecutive negative test results.

The data reported in the study were collected between July 2015 and May 2016. Although scientists have known for years that Ebola can survive in certain parts of the body that the immune system cannot easily reach—such as the testes and the eyes—the new data sheds light on how long it can survive both in general and in different individuals.

"Before this outbreak, scientists believed that Ebola virus could be found in semen for three months after recovery. With this study, we now know that virus may persist for a year or longer," said Moses J. Soka, M.D., coordinator of Ebola Virus Disease Survivor Clinical Care at the Liberian Ministry of Health and first director of the MSPH program.

"We now have many more Ebola survivors than ever before. This work demonstrates the importance of providing laboratory testing and behavioral counseling to empower survivors to make informed decisions to protect their intimate partners."