The headlines circulating on the Web Tuesday may have given you pause: “India’s First Ebola Patient Has Been Quarantined,” Time Magazine wrote on its website. “Man tests positive for Ebola, kept under isolation,” Press Trust of India declared.
But those headlines don’t tell the full story.
An Indian man, who had previously recovered from Ebola, flew from Liberia to Delhi on Nov. 10, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said Tuesday in a statement.
At the Delhi airport, the 26-year-old immediately told officials his medical history: He was successfully treated for Ebola in Liberia and released from a health facility back in late September. When he boarded the plane, he had no symptoms.
The man’s blood tested negative for Ebola, three times at the airport. But the virus was still lingering in one bodily fluid — his semen, health officials said.
That’s not a surprise. Doctors have known for decades that the Ebola virus persists in semen for months after a person recovers from the disease.
“That’s because antibodies produced in the bloodstream don’t reach the testicles,” said Marie-Christine Ferir, an emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, based in Brussels.
“Since Ebola can be transmitted through sexual contact,” she said, “male survivors are sent home with condoms and instructed to use them for the next three months if they engage in intercourse.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that men abstain from sex for three months after recovery from Ebola.
But India is being more cautious. They are quarantining the man at the Delhi airport until his semen is free of the virus, the Ministry of Health said in the statement.
“This would rule out even the remote possibility of spread of this disease by the sexual route,” the statement said. “The situation is under control and there is no need for any alarm.”
Virologist Alan Schmaljohn, of the University of Maryland, said he doesn’t know of a case in which a man passed Ebola to his partner through sex. But it has happened with a virus related to Ebola.
Back in 1967, a German man transmitted Marburg virus to his wife four months after he was discharged from the hospital and declared cured.
“Sexual transmission of Ebola is a significant risk,” Schmaljohn said.