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Sexual transmission of Ebola poses public health risk

The warning comes from ecologists and virologists working at University of Georgia. The risk of sexual transmission of the Ebola virus emerged during the recent spate of infections in West Africa; this route of infection was not scientifically proven until 2015.

Since then, further studies have revealed the potential for viral transmission by sexual intercourse exists for three to four months after the virus has been cleared from the bloodstream. Moreover, this may be an underestimation.

Ebola is an unpleasant disease. After an incubation time that can stretch to twenty-one days, one of the common signs of the disease is bleeding from mucous membranes and puncture sites. If the infected person does not recover, death due to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome occurs. With the 2014-2015 pandemic, the worst affected regions were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (the World Health Organization has this week tweeted that Liberia is free of ‘active Ebola virus’.)

The first case of Ebola infection by sexual contact was reported in October 2015. Here a Liberian woman contracted Ebola after having sexual intercourse with a man carrying Ebola. The man had contracted Ebola, survived, and had been given a clean bill of health.

In a statement supporting the research, Professor Andrew Park notes: “We realized that this could be a hidden source of the virus. We wanted to find out what role sexual transmission might play in the dynamics of an outbreak.”

This led Ebola Alerts to tweet: “#Ebola transmission through sex may reignite outbreaks: WASHINGTON: Sexual transmission of the Ebola virus…”

For this, Professor Park and his colleagues designed a computer model to explore different outbreak scenarios. In one model they used a population of 1000 people and introduced Ebola to the group. They then ran a program to assess the rate and path of transmission. Without any measures in place, infection moved to 80 percent.

Next they introduced the effective health prevention measures that had been introduced into Africa. This lowered the infection rate to around 25 percent and the eventual stabilization of the rate of infection.

Finally, the scientists added a new dimension: sexual intercourse, especially considering the extent that those who survive the virus can pass on the infection through sexual contact. Here, although the rate of transmission was low, the duration of outbreaks increased and the ability of existing health measures proved less adequate. The findings signalled a future policy concern.

The research is published in the journal Royal Society journal Biology Letters. The research model is titled “The potential for sexual transmission to compromise control of Ebola virus outbreaks.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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