Blood, Sweat and Tears: Study Will Watch Ebola Survivors

by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 
Image: Slit-Lamp Photograph of the Left Eye 14 Weeks after the Onset of Ebola Virus Disease
Can Ebola lurk in your eye? A new study aims to find out.The New England Journal of Medicine

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Does Ebola stay in your eyes after you recover? Can it spread via semen? Why does it cause achey joints?

U.S. researchers are launching a study in Liberia to take a look at survivors of the deadly virus to see just how common these long-term effects are, and whether they contribute to outbreaks.

“To unravel the many unknowns, we have expanded the focus of our partnership with Liberia’s Ministry of Health to include research on the long-term health effects of Ebola virus disease, in addition to our ongoing efforts to find an effective preventive vaccine and treatments for Ebola virus disease,” said Dr. Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Liberia’s health ministry and the NIAID will be studying 1,500 Ebola survivors and 6,000 of their close contacts. They’ll look at sweat, tears, semen and other bodily fluids in the survivors and follow everyone for as long as five years.

The Ebola epidemic is over in Liberia, and it has waned but not ended in Sierra Leone and Guinea. In the past week, 24 cases have been reported in those two countries.

More than 27,000 people have been infected in the West African epidemic, which started last spring. More than 11,000 deaths have been confirmed but the World Health Organization says there were more than that –- they just never got recorded.

The epidemic eclipses all previous outbreaks combined. Researchers have been testing experimental vaccines and drugs and now they will also check out reports about the long-term effects of surviving a bout of Ebola, which kills half to 90 percent of victims.

“There have been reports of inflammatory eye disease and vision loss among Ebola survivors."

“There have been reports of inflammatory eye disease and vision loss among Ebola survivors,” said National Eye Institute clinical director Dr. Frederick Ferris. “Our goal is to determine the incidence and extent of Ebola-related eye disease among survivors, risk factors contributing to its development, and optimal treatment strategies.”

One Ebola survivor, Dr. Ian Crozier, was infected in Sierra Leone and he discovered the virus stayed in his eye for months and damaged his vision temporarily. Other survivors have complained of vision loss, joint pain and other long-term effects.

And health experts suspect men who survive infection may carry the virus in their semen for weeks or months afterwards. Liberia urged survivors to either stop having sex or use a condom after a woman apparently got infected by her fiancé months after his recovery from Ebola, and died in March.

The researchers will also watch to see if survivors or sexual partners of survivors suffer pregnancy complications, diabetes, high blood pressure or immune system dysfunction.

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