NAU geneticist on international study reporting first known case of virus transmission from female Ebola survivor

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2014-2015 outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Western Africa was unprecedented, with 28,000 cases killing more than 11,000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

While Ebola virus is typically spread through the bodily fluids of symptomatic individuals, the virus can persist in some compartments of the body, such as the male reproductive system. In several cases, sexual transmission from these persistent infections has resulted in the renewed spread of Ebola virus disease in Western Africa.

A new study recently published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, however, reports on the first known case of Ebola virus transmission from a female Ebola survivor. Northern Arizona University geneticist Jason Ladner, assistant director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute, is a joint first author of the study, along with colleagues on an international team of scientists from organizations including the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the International Rescue Committee.

“This investigation underscores the need for focused prevention efforts among survivors, as well as sustained capacity to rapidly detect new cases, in order to prevent further spread of the virus following an outbreak,” Ladner said.

Study first to provide evidence of virus transmission from a female Ebola survivor

According to the study, “An Ebola virus disease cluster in Liberia in November 2015, after the end of widespread transmission, raised the possibility of transmission from a persistently infected individual. Investigations showed that a female patient survived Ebola virus disease in 2014, had viral persistence or recurrent disease, and transmitted the virus to other family members a year later. Based on serology and epidemiological and genomic data, our study is to our knowledge the first to provide evidence suggesting Ebola virus transmission from a persistently infected female survivor of Ebola virus disease.”

Ladner led the analysis of viral genomic data collected from the patients in the November 2015 cluster, as well as that from epidemiologically linked cases that occurred in 2014. These data were critical for establishing a link between the 2014 and 2015 cases.

“This study also has implications for the design of therapeutic drugs targeting Ebola,” Ladner said. “In order to prevent the potential for recrudescence—a recurrence of disease caused by the virus—and additional viral transmission, it will be important to clear the virus from all of a patient’s body compartments.”

Ladner, who joined NAU in January from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, is an evolutionary biologist specializing in genetic analysis and interpretation. His research leverages the latest genomic technologies to study the spread of viral and bacterial pathogens in both human and wildlife populations.

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