Liberian officials urge abstinence for Ebola survivors

Liberian officials on Sunday urged Ebola survivors to observe a period of strict sexual abstinence after they recover from the deadly virus.

The recommendation comes amid fears that Liberia’s latest case of Ebola was the result of sexual transmission. That patient, 44-year-old Ruth Tugbah, died Friday.

Before Tugbah’s March 20 diagnosis, Liberia had gone several weeks without a new case, raising hopes that the West African country might have seen the last of the virus.

The abstinence recommendation is one of several recent indications that officials may be giving more credence to the idea that Ebola can be spread through sexual contact.

Research on whether Ebola can be transmitted sexually is inconclusive. The World Health Organization has said traces of the virus can be found in the semen of recovering men at least 82 days after they first show symptoms.

But it is unclear whether that fluid can then infect others, says Ann Kurth, Associate Dean for Research at New York University’s Global Institute of Public Health.

There is “no direct evidence or epidemiologic studies trying to test the precise primary research question of whether sexual transmission is a contributor,” Kurth said in a phone interview. She cautions that anecdotal reports indicate sexual transmission “is a risk,” however.

Though the WHO has previously advised Ebola survivors to practice abstinence or at least safe sex, the organization had not explicitly warned that sexual transmission might be a concern after the 42-day deadline.

Such revisions are sometimes necessary in public health policy, Kurth said.

“As the knowledge base grows, you sometimes have to update the messages,” she said. “That is a part of public health — we don’t always have all the answers right at the beginning.”