In the early days of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa much emphasis was placed on avoiding ‘bushmeat’. Health communications materials prominently featured monkeys, bats and deer (oh my!). In mid-2014 a Red Cross team went door to door in Kailahun province, the border region where Ebola first arrived in Sierra Leone on a sensitization mission, explaining to people exactly how the virus spreads and how to avoid it with three simple rules. “Rule three: Don’t eat bushmeat, the meat of wild animals.”
After thousands of deaths, it turns would that most likely only the December 2013 index case in the forests of Guinea was the only one that was associated with wild animals. The rest spread from human to human.
This is not a cause for letting down our guard. As Tolbert Nyenswah, head of Liberia’s Ebola response team, told Reuters, “the country had strengthened its surveillance and response capacity and its laboratory system since the start of the outbreak. We’ve proven we can contain the outbreak, we can intervene very swiftly,” said Nyenswah.
Science Daily reports from the University of Georgia, “Sexual transmission of Ebola is likely to impact course of outbreaks.” Data have shown that “viable Ebola virus remained in the semen of disease survivors for months after it was no longer detectable in their blood — and by a study reporting at least one instance of sexual transmission of Ebola.” Sexual transmission was hypothesized as “the source of Ebola transmission that killed a 17- year-old boy in Liberia” back in the summer of 2015 when another mini-outbreak occurred. As Annalisa Merelli reported, with the worst of the epidemic over, Ebola is essentially an STD.
Ebola is not the only tropical virus that has become an STD. While WHO notes that “Vector control is critical in substantially reducing the risk of Zika transmission … avoidance of unprotected sexual activity with a partner possibly exposed to Zika virus,” is also necessary. As of June 1st, 11 out of 618 cases of Zika reported to CDC in the U.S. were sexually transmitted.
The lines dividing zoonotic, infectious and sexually transmitted diseases are blurring. The common thread is the need for strong surveillance systems and proper communication of research findings so that the public can protect itself.