The risk of infection with the often-fatal Ebola virus from non-sexual contact with survivors seems low, researchers report.
The British team analyzed nearly 6,000 articles on Ebola and found that, while the virus may be present in certain areas of survivors’ bodies for an extended time, it is typically cleared from the blood within 16 days.
In general, that means there is little risk of contracting Ebola from a survivor, the researchers concluded.
However, an important exception is transmission of the virus through sex because Ebola remains in semen for months after a patient has recovered, the scientists added.
The study was published Feb. 29 in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
In 2014, three West African countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — were hit hard by the worst Ebola outbreak in history. More than 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The recent Ebola outbreak was very different to anything we’d seen before — it lasted longer than any previous Ebola emergence, and it left behind thousands of survivors,” said lead study author Paul Hunter, a professor at Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia in England.
“We wanted to know how long the Ebola virus persists in different body fluids after people have recovered — in order to assess how much of a transmission risk those survivors pose to their family, communities and medical professionals,” he said in a university news release.
Other than blood and semen, most other body fluids pose a low risk of transmitting Ebola, the investigators reported. However, there was too little evidence to come to a strong conclusion on breast milk, they added.
“This research is important because there has been little evidence to give definitive guidance about which body fluids are infectious and when they pose a risk. Above all, this research strengthens the case for scientific evidence to be used rather than fear when managing infectious diseases such as Ebola,” Hunter said.
The new study shows that “the Ebola virus is usually no longer present in most body fluids after a few weeks (apart from in semen), but other later health complications have been widely reported, especially in the most recent outbreak. We did not find any evidence that the virus can reactivate to the point that it becomes infectious for others by non-sexual contact,” he said.
“Consequently,” Hunter added, “transmission from social contact with an Ebola survivor is not something that is likely to be a problem, even if that person is suffering from longer term complications.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about Ebola.