The study performed in Sierra Leone, one of the West African countries hit the hardest by Ebola, involved 93 men who had been infected between two and 10 months prior. Each of the men were tested three times: in the first three months of their illness, between four to six months after it began, and between seven to nine months later.
One hundred percent of the men’s semen tested positive for Ebola in the first three months and 65 percent tested positive after four to six. But what researchers found next rattled them: 26 percent of men had Ebola in their semen between seven and nine months after they were infected.
“These results come at a critically important time, reminding us that while Ebola case numbers continue to plummet, Ebola survivors and their families continue to struggle with the effects of the disease,” said Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organization’s special representative on Ebola. “This study provides further evidence that survivors need continued, substantial support for the next 6 to 12 months to meet these challenges and to ensure their partners are not exposed to potential virus.”
Prior to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which infected more than 28,000 people, research on how long the virus remained in bodily fluids was inconclusive thanks to the virus’s high mortality rate (up to 90 percent) and little medical access to the villages previously affected. With a mortality rate in this epidemic hovering between 60-70 percent, researchers have begun to study the phenomenon on a larger scale.
The new findings have prompted the WHO to release an updated statement asking Ebola survivors to either refrain from sexual activity or observe safe sex for nine months or more.
While it’s unclear why some of the participants were able to rid themselves of Ebola sooner, scientists hope that further study will reveal potential new therapies to ensure the safety of all in West Africa. (Nine new Ebola cases were recorded in September.)
The more than 8,000 male survivors of Ebola now have a clear roadmap for how to keep themselves and their partner’s safe—one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hopes they will utilize.
“Ebola survivors face an increasing number of recognized health complications,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement. “This study provides important new information about the persistence of Ebola virus in semen and helps us make recommendations to survivors and their loved ones to help them stay healthy.”