According to reports, this recovered Ebola patient tested negative before flying into New Delhi airport on November 10 where he was immediately quarantined – despite the paperwork and previous negative tests. It was only later, after he’d been held that they tested his semen and found evidence of the virus. And because they found “traces of the virus” he will be held under quarantine until his semen tests negative.
Ebola and semen
It is well known and has been shown in a number of studies that semen and breast milk can contain ebola virus after it has been cleared from the rest of the bodily fluids; up to 90 days in semen.
This is not surprising as these are immune privileged sites in which immune responses are suppressed. In addition, antibodies in blood don’t make it to the testes.
Ebola is not the only hemorrhagic fever virus for which this is the case. Lassa virus can be detected in semen after the patient recovers and there is also considerable anecdotal clinical evidence that Junin virus, the agent that causes Argentine Hemorrhagic Fever, remains in semen after recovery.
However, finding “traces of virus” is not the same as finding infectious virus particles and at this point we don’t know what tests were used or what was found. And while the risk of sexual transmission is there – something I wrote about in a recent blog – it is extremely low. In fact only one study has found indirect evidence that one woman may have contracted Ebola from sex, but the researchers could not confirm that she actually had Ebola, or that she got it from sex.
However, because there is a risk, the US Centers for Disease Control recommends that male survivors of Ebola are specifically counselled on the risks of transmission through sexual activity at the time of discharge, and are warned to either abstain or use condoms for three months to protect their partners.
In addition, those who lived through the horror of a Liberian Ebola treatment centre are unlikely to be cavalier regarding its spread. The death and suffering they will have already seen must certainly take a toll. Quarantine is probably unnecessary. But “probably” clearly isn’t good enough for the Indian ministry of health, which has decided that the best way to handle this is to remove all chance for sexual transmission of Ebola via this survivor.
Taking no chances
If Ebola made its way into India it would be devastating, especially since many areas have the same kind of inadequate health care infrastructures and poor hygiene standards that led to the spiralling epidemic in West Africa.
Countries facing these types of situations have much more to worry about – and, although I may not think quarantine is necessary or even the right thing to do in this situation, I recognise that a health ministry with more than a billion lives at stake might be willing to take stronger measures to prevent the spread of a disease that is decimating parts of West Africa. But this may not be necessary in countries with better health-care systems.
This post originally appeared on The Conversation.
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