The government of Liberia is calling on survivors of Ebola to abstain from having sex, or to have protected sex, until Ebola response agencies establish how long the virus stays in bodily fluids, including semen.
The announcement comes as Liberia registered the latest victim to die of Ebola — a woman named Ruth Tugbah, whose only risk factor was that she had a boyfriend who was an Ebola survivor. Before Tugbah's death, Liberia had gone three weeks without a new Ebola diagnosis, giving hope to a nation ravaged by the epidemic that took the lives of more than 4,000 victims.
"Ebola survivors should consider correct and consistent use of condoms for all sexual acts beyond three months until more information is available," said Liberia deputy health minister Tolbert Nyenswah.
Blood samples obtained from Tugbah on March 19 show she was positive for Ebola. Considering the maximum viral incubation period of 21 days, health officials say the earliest Tugbah could have been infected was in February — well over three months after her partner was cured for Ebola. This indicates that survivors could possibly be carriers for the disease, even after being treated.
South Africa's Times Live cites officials from two Ebola response agencies who say scientists have discovered the genetic material of Ebola in Tugbah's partner's semen —although they stress that it is not evidence that Tugbah's semen still contained the virus itself or that Tugbah was infected from it.
Liberian scientists are still working to determine whether the virus that infected Tugbah matched that found in her partner. Ebola survivors are encouraged to abstain from having sex, or to use condoms during all sexual activity, until health agencies gather more information.
Condoms are believed to be effective in preventing the transmission of Ebola, although they have not yet undergone real-world testing. Nathalie Jeanne Nicole Broutet, a medical researcher for the World Health Organization's Department of Reproductive Health and Research, explains that condoms block smaller viruses like the 27-nanomillimeter bacteriophage. The Ebola virus is much larger at 80 nanomillimeters.
"In theory, the Ebola virus wouldn't pass the condom," Broutet said. "They have a 95 percent efficacy if you use them constantly and correctly."
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