The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed unfortunate new truths about the Ebola virus on Tuesday, Aug. 30: it can linger in semen for more than a year - far longer than previously thought - and is more likely to be found in older men.
It has been assumed that Ebola could only remain in semen for a maximum of nine months after recovery, and once the person in question has recovered, they will be immune and no longer be able to get sick or transmit the virus to anyone else - similar to other infectious diseases such as chicken pox and the bubonic plague.
However, preliminary findings from 429 male Ebola survivors taking part in a national screening program in Liberia have served to eliminate that assumption when researchers found that 9 percent (38) had fragments of Ebola in their semen, and of those 38 men, 63 percent tested positive for Ebola in their semen a year after recovering from the disease.
In one man's case, the virus had remained in his semen for at least 565 days after he recovered from the illness. That's quite the far cry from the 70-day, to 90-day, to nine-month estimate that older studies once gave us.
To be clear, this study can only detect the genetic material of the virus in the semen, and not whether there is actually a live virus that can tramit the disease within it. However, that alone is enough of a reason to cause concern among health officials.
Why? Because as mentioned previously, the findings shattered what we thought we about Ebola's persistence in bodily fluids. More importantly though, it has huge ramifications for those living in places that had once been ravaged by Ebola (such as Liberia and other African nations like Guinea and Sierra Leone).
For example, in March, there was an outbreak in Guinea that was traced to a man who had recovered more than 15 months before from Ebola. He infected a woman through intercourse, and 13 people became infected, with nine of them dying as a result.
"We have now seen very long persistence in semen, which means we'll see a risk of cases for years to come," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters Tuesday.
Simply put, this all means that Ebola survivors can become a source for reigniting outbreaks of the virus, which infected more than 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000 before it was brought under control.
Though not as significant as the primary finding, there was another interesting revelation that came as a result of this study: men who were older than 40 were more likely to have a semen sample test positive for traces of the virus. Unfortunately, researchers have been unable to determine why this is the case.
The study was published Aug. 30 in the The Lancet Global Health journal.
In the meantime, health officials in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have put in a lot of effort in recent months to prevent Ebola from spreading any further. They advise Ebola survivors abstain from sex for three months (though that might not be too helpful now) or use a condom.