The Ebola epidemics in West Africa, which lasted from December 2013 to June 2016 and resulted in 28,600 infections and 11,325 deaths, although contained, still causes concerns in the medical world. Until recently, only male survivals of the viral disease were known to infect others. However, the case of a female Ebola survival published on Monday by Lancet Infectious Diseases gives experts another reason to worry about the possible return of this deadly disease.
Not only male, but also female Ebola survivors can infect others
Before the story of a Liberian woman was described, the scientists thought that only men can infect others after recovering from Ebola. It is known that the virus can persist in semen for up to two years, therefore it can be sexually transmitted. When it comes to women, some bits of virus have been detected in spinal fluid and the breast milk of female survivals, but no cases of post-recovery transmission were recorded until now.
A female Ebola survival infected her family
The case described now by Lancet Infectious Diseases took place in November 2015, 6 months after Liberia was declared Ebola-free. The woman’s 15-year-old son was admitted to hospital due to severe illness, showing symptoms of Ebola such as vomiting with blood. The tests showed that he was indeed infected with the virus and died 10 days after the initial symptoms.
Soon after, the whole family was tested for Ebola and vaccinated using the newly developed Ebola vaccine. The tests showed that the boy’s father and brother had Ebola and luckily both recovered. However, the mother and her newborn baby did not have any traces of the virus in blood, but antibodies against it. This seems to suggest that the mother was infected with Ebola in the past and developed the antibodies which her baby absorbed through breastfeeding.
How did the woman infect her family?
According to the study, the woman, who was pregnant at the time, got infected in July 2014 and miscarried, but eventually recovered. However, she was never tested for Ebola. Thirteen months after her recovery, in September 2015, she gave birth to a boy. Soon after, she was taken to the hospital, due to shortness of breath, fatigue and swollen legs. She was not tested for Ebola, since Liberia was declared Ebola-free, instead she was treated for malaria, received blood transfusions and then sent back home.
Most likely, the weakened immune system of the woman during pregnancy allowed for the hidden reservoir of Ebola virus to re-emerge and spread to her family after 13 months of being dormant. At the moment, the scientists do not know where exactly the virus was hiding.
Even though the West African epidemics is long gone, the described case gives us a reason to worry about the possibility of re-emergence of this deadly disease. For female Ebola survivors, it could mean that the stigma they face can worsen.