Could Sex Have Brought Ebola Back to Liberia?

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The World Health Organization and the Liberian government say they are checking into the possibility that a woman infected with Ebola virus caught it from a survivor she was dating.

Ebola’s still spreading in West Africa, although not nearly as badly as it was during the late summer, fall and winter. WHO reports 79 new cases last week, taking the total number of infections nearly to 25,000 – hundreds of times more than in any previous outbreak of Ebola. More than 10,000 people have died.

Liberian officials and outside agencies are keeping an eye on 71 people the patient may have been in contact with. The woman, who is being treated, is currently the only Liberian known to have Ebola.

“The patient is not a contact associated with the country’s last confirmed case, who tested negative for Ebola virus disease for a second time on 3 March,” WHO said in an update published Wednesday. “Investigations into how the patient was exposed to Ebola are ongoing."

“Investigations into how the patient was exposed to Ebola are ongoing."

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Dr. Francis Kateh, acting head of Liberia's Ebola Case Management Team, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the patient had been dating a man who had survived Ebola infection. He has given samples for testing.

WHO says the virus can persist in the semen of men who survive Ebola, and advises survivors to abstain from sex for three months or use a condom. Ebola definitely spreads through bodily fluids — vomit and diarrhea, blood and even sweat. It requires close, sustained contact however, and caregivers are most at risk of infection, or people preparing bodies of people killed by Ebola.

Doctors knew it was technically possible for it to spread through semen, also, but had never documented a case.

Several reports issued this week have slammed the global response to Ebola as far too little, far too late. It's been just about a year since the outbreak was recognized.

“Had (the WHO and the United Nations) responded earlier and more effectively after the first signs of an uncharacteristic outbreak, it is likely that the number of lives lost, the impact on health infrastructure, and the magnitude of the eventual response could have been drastically diminished,” a team of experts at Massachusetts General Hospital and Georgetown University wrote in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.

"For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail."

"For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences,” Christopher Stokes of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said in releasing an MSF report about the epidemic entitled Pushed to the Limit and Beyond.

“The Ebola epidemic proved to be an exceptional event that exposed the reality of how inefficient and slow health and aid systems are in responding to emergencies,” added MSF International president Dr. Joanne Liu.

In the United States, a medical worker infected with Ebola was still listed in critical condition at the National Institutes of Health. And 16 other U.S. employees of the nonprofit Partners in Health were under observation after being evacuated from Sierra Leone. They'd either been in contact with the U.S. patient, or with an Sierra Leonean doctor who was also infected.