ATLANTA, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- New testing among men in Sierra Leone shows the Ebola virus can persist in semen nine months after symptoms start, leading to renewed efforts to educate people in countries affected by the epidemic.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has started to slow -- there have been no new cases of the virus reported in Sierra Leone in four weeks -- however officials are working to keep people there vigilant and careful because the virus can persist in bodily fluid, including eye fluid, even without symptoms.
There are more than 8,000 male Ebola survivors in the countries of West Africa, raising concern, especially in light of the new study, that carelessness about sex could reignite the outbreak.
"Does it mean they are still infectious or are they just fragments? We don't have the definitive evidence yet," Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, told the BBC. "The degree of uncertainty is worrying, that's why we need to take precautionary measures, so we advise survivors to take protection through contraception."
Researchers tested semen from 93 men in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for Ebola virus genetic material between 2 and 10 months after they were diagnosed.
All men who'd been diagnosed within the previous three months tested positive for the virus. More than half of men, 65 percent, whose semen was tested four to six months after diagnosis were found to have Ebola present in their semen. Of the men tested nine months after being diagnosed, 26 percent of their semen tested positive for Ebola.
Although there cases of Ebola being spread through sexual contact are rare, and survivors have not previously reignited outbreaks, scientists are playing it safe by educating survivors and distributing condoms.
"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, special representative on Ebola for the WHO director-general, in a press release. "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."
The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.