Ebola Can Lurk In Semen For More Than A Year. Could This Explain A New Outbreak?

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There are fears of a new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the country has been hit with new cases of the disease. 

The World Health Organization reports that a woman in North Kivu Province started to show symptoms of the disease on January 25 and died on February 3. By February 6, a lab confirmed that she had tested positive for Ebola. The WHO African Region has since confirmed a second case. 

The WHO says the source of the first reported infection is “still under investigation.” However, they have also noted that the deceased's husband is an Ebola survivor of the recent outbreak which ended in June 2020, leading some to suspect she contracted Ebola from his bodily fluids.

It’s known that Ebola can linger in bodily fluids, namely semen, for over a year after the initial infection. A 2016 study published in the Lancet Global Health found that 24 out of 429 men in Liberia tested positive for Ebola in their semen at least 12 months after they’d recovered from the disease. In one of the men, Ebola virus RNA was detected in the semen 565 days after recovery from the infection.

The disease can also be spread by having contact with urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and amniotic fluid of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola virus disease. Additionally, the virus is still present in animal reservoirs in the region.

The WHO is also investigating whether the new case is linked to “a new spillover event” or whether it’s a resurgence of the outbreak that ran from 2018 to 2020

“Samples have been sent to the National Institute of Biomedical Research in Kinshasa, #DRC for genome sequencing to determine link to the previous outbreak. It is not unusual for sporadic cases to occur following a major outbreak,” tweeted WHO African Region. 

Ebola is a viral disease that causes problems with how your blood clots and is often fatal if left untreated. Around half the people who contract the disease die, although case fatality rates have varied from 25 percent to 90 percent in different outbreaks. The infection often starts with symptoms such as fever, fatigue, muscle pains, and is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function, and unexplained bleeding. Fortunately, effective Ebola vaccines have been developed in recent years and were extensively used in the 2018-2020 DCR outbreak.

The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the deadliest outbreak of the disease in history, with more than 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths, primarily in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the DRC was responsible for around 3,470 cases and 2,280 deaths. Like many countries that have dealt with severe disease outbreaks, the DCR has noted their experience with Ebola taught them some important lessons to prepare them for COVID-19. 

“DRC is now better, smarter, and faster at responding to Ebola and this is an enduring legacy that is supporting the response to COVID-19 and other outbreaks,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement last year.

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