Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 August 2014

Ebola survivors can infect others with their sperm

Even those who manage to survive Ebola aren't out of the woods, and could worsen the outbreak through their infected bodily fluids.

While Ebola kills between 70% and 90% of those it infects, it is important not to forget that there is a large number who survive the virus and return home. While these people may seem to be free of the infection, there is still the potential for them to spread the disease.

There is still no cure for Ebola, but some sufferer's immune systems will manage to fight off the disease and the patient will survive. 

Some of these survivors will emerge relatively unscathed, while others may suffer long-term consequences due to their exposure to the virus. These consequences can include joint pain, muscle pain, inflammation of the testicles and even blindness. Generally speaking, the longer a patient is infected with the disease, the higher the chance of long-term problems.

Read: The signs and symptoms of Ebola

However, the most serious problem related to Ebola survivors is their continued ability to infect others once they leave hospital, suggests the World Health Organisation. 

Ebola is usually only transmitted through the bodily fluids, such as sweat, of heavily ill individuals. This is considered the "saving grace" of the disease in that it is impossible for people to catch it from carriers of the disease who are not yet presenting symptoms. 

However, male survivors are an exception to this rule in that they can still harbour the live virus in their sperm which can then be transmitted sexually to an uninfected partner. Sperm produced by the testes prior to the infection being defeated can survive long after recovery as the scrotum provides a highly conducive environment to survival. With 1 848 cases confirmed as of the 9th August, even a 90% fatality rate would leave almost 200 survivors who, if male, would be able to pass on the disease. 

One mitigating factor may be that survivors are often shunned when they return home due to the belief that they might spread the disease, which is greatly feared amongst West Africa's rural communities. The Associated Press reported the case of two survivors who were shunned from their villages once they returned.

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Sources: Portland Herald/WHO

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