Investigators Report on Possible Sexual Transmission of Ebola Virus

On March 20, 2015, 30 days after the most recent confirmed Ebola Virus Disease (Ebola) patient in Liberia was isolated, Ebola was laboratory confirmed in a woman in Monrovia. The investigation identified only one epidemiologic link to Ebola: unprotected vaginal intercourse with a survivor. Published reports from previous outbreaks have demonstrated Ebola survivors can continue to harbor virus in immunologically privileged sites for a period of time after convalescence. Ebola virus has been isolated from semen as long as 82 days after symptom onset and viral RNA has been detected in semen up to 101 days after symptom onset. The findings are reported in the May 1, 2015 issue of MMWR.

One instance of possible sexual transmission of Ebola has been reported, although the accompanying evidence was inconclusive. In addition, possible sexual transmission of Marburg virus, a filovirus related to Ebola, was documented in 1968. This report describes the investigation by the Government of Liberia and international response partners of the source of Liberia’s latest Ebola case and discusses the public health implications of possible sexual transmission of Ebola virus. Based on information gathered in this investigation, CDC now recommends that contact with semen from male Ebola survivors be avoided until more information regarding the duration and infectiousness of viral shedding in body fluids is known. If male survivors have sex (oral, vaginal, or anal), a condom should be used correctly and consistently every time.

On March 14, 2015, a woman from Monrovia aged 44 years (patient A) developed headache, weakness, joint pain and nausea. She went to a hospital on March 19, and was triaged as a suspected Ebola patient to a nearby transit center (a facility for rapid isolation, diagnosis, and referral of Ebola patients). On March 20, Ebola was confirmed by reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Genomic sequencing of Ebola virus from her blood specimen identified six mutations not found in 25 other genomes sequenced from Liberia or in 107 genomes obtained from Guinea, Mali, and Sierra Leone. The investigation found no history of travel by patient A, no interaction with visitors from Sierra Leone or Guinea, no recent funeral attendance, and no contact with a person with symptoms consistent with Ebola.

Patient A did report unprotected vaginal intercourse on March 7, 2015, with an Ebola survivor (survivor A), a man aged 46 years from another community in Monrovia. Survivor A had experienced onset of symptoms consistent with Ebola, including fever, anorexia, and headache on September 9, 2014, and was admitted to an Ebola treatment unit on Sept. 23. His first test by RT-PCR on Sept. 28, 2014, was indeterminate (positive on one assay with a cycle threshold of 40 indicating a low viral load and negative on a second assay). A second specimen was negative by RT-PCR on Oct. 3, 2014. Survivor A was discharged from the Ebola treatment unit on Oct. 7, 2014 and reported no subsequent illness or symptoms.

Survivor A had multiple family members with whom he lived or interacted with confirmed or suspected Ebola during the same period as his symptoms and Ebola treatment unit admission. His older brother was confirmed with Ebola on Sept. 5, 2014, from a postmortem blood specimen. Survivor A’s younger brother and daughter were admitted to an Ebola treatment unit on Sept. 23, 2014, with symptoms consistent with Ebola. His younger brother died on Sept. 25 and his daughter died sometime before Sept. 28. No laboratory results were available for survivor A’s younger brother or daughter. Survivor A’s son entered a holding center on Oct. 8, 2014, was confirmed to have Ebola on Oct. 11 and died soon thereafter.

A new blood specimen was collected from survivor A on March 23, 2015, as part of patient A’s case investigation. The specimen was negative for Ebola virus by RT-PCR. Enzymelinked immunosorbent assays for Ebola virus glycoprotein- and nucleoprotein-specific immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies were positive; immunoglobulin M (IgM) was undetectable. A semen specimen, collected from survivor A on March 27, 2015, was positive by RT-PCR with a cycle threshold of 32. Complete genome sequencing of the viral RNA from survivor A’s semen has not been possible to date given the low level of detectable viral nucleic acid. However, the partial sequence obtained so far (28% of the genome) closely matches the sequence from patient A. A rapid diagnostic test was conducted to evaluate human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a possible reason for long-term viral shedding. The HIV test was negative.

In addition to patient A, survivor A reported recent unprotected vaginal intercourse with a woman aged 45 years (contact A) with no history of illness. Intercourse with contact A occurred on three to five occasions between the last week of February and March 15, 2015. A blood specimen collected from contact A on March 27, 2015 was negative for Ebola virus–specific IgG and IgM.

Since Jan. 21, 2015, all new confirmed cases of Ebola in Liberia have been epidemiologically linked to a single transmission chain (CDC Liberia Ebola Response Team, unpublished data, 2015). Ebola viral RNA from three of the 22 confirmed cases in this transmission chain (with onset dates of Jan. 8, Jan. 27, and Feb. 9, 2015) were sequenced and compared with the genetic material from patient A. None of the sequences from these isolates shared the mutations observed in patient A’s isolate.

Available epidemiologic and laboratory findings indicate that patient A may have been exposed to Ebola virus through sexual contact with survivor A, whose semen was PCR-positive 199 days (Sept. 9, 2014 to March 27, 2015) after his likely Ebola onset. Although the diagnostic RT-PCR in September was indeterminate, survivor A’s positive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays, specifically against the viral nucleoprotein, indicate previous Ebola virus infection. His clinical course and epidemiologic links suggest that he had Ebola in early September 2014. The diagnostic tests were performed 18 and 24 days after symptom onset, and the results may have reflected convalescence. Although less likely, it is also possible that his Ebola virus infection occurred later and the indeterminate test result reflected the absence of Ebola virus in September 2014.

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Reference: Christie A, et al. Possible Sexual Transmission of Ebola Virus - Liberia, 2015. MMWR. Vol. 64, May 1, 2015.

Source: CDC