Latest West Africa Ebola outbreak started by survivor, researchers say

Genetic analysis suggests transmission occurred through semen

Guinea’s latest Ebola outbreak is believed to have been started by a survivor of the 2014-2016 outbreak, who transmitted it to a sex partner through semen, according to a genetic analysis.

The finding, which came from research conducted by scientists from Guinea, Senegal, the US and UK, has stunned researchers. It is also likely to distress Ebola survivors, some of whom already face stigma in their day-to-day lives. It had previously been known that the virus could live in semen for months and potentially years, but never as long as this.

The latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa was confirmed in early February. It has killed at least nine people and infected 18.

Investigations traced the infections back to the funeral of a nurse, which took place on January 28th, 2021, in Gouéké in Guinea’s N’Zerekore prefecture.


"Banking on the expertise and experience built during the previous outbreak, health teams in Guinea are on the move to quickly trace the path of the virus and curb further infections," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Africa director, at the time.

More than 28,000 people were infected during the previous West African Ebola outbreak and more than 11,000 died.

Unlike then, both preventative vaccines and therapeutic treatments for people infected are now available, greatly reducing the chances of getting Ebola and improving the likelihood of survival for those who do.

Healthcare workers are carrying out ring vaccinations in Guinea, which means targeting contacts of known or suspected cases, and their contacts.

Haemorrhagic fever

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever, which can cause victims to get fever and body aches, bleed from orifices, and potentially die from dehydration or organ failure. It has a 21-day incubation period.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, one of the three worst-hit countries last time, locals are concerned the virus could spread again.

“I feel so bad. Things will be worse than before,” said Sahr Momoh, an IT specialist, speaking on the street in capital Freetown. “All activities are disrupted because of Covid-19. This coronavirus affected so many business people. Now we don’t have the money, don’t have the capacity [to respond to Ebola].”

Demoh Bah (42), a trader, said: “Last time [Ebola] came so many were affected.” Still, she isn’t frightened yet. “I’m not scared at the moment, I believe true prayers will stop Ebola from coming again,” Ms Bah said.

"We're better prepared from where we were seven years ago but it's certainly still very concerning," said Jonathan Lascher, executive director of Partners in Health (PIH) in Sierra Leone, an organisation which works with governments to improve their health systems.

He listed pre-emptive steps already being taken, including screenings at the Guinea border and outreach to district leaders around the country.

During the last Ebola outbreak, he said, “International aid dollars prioritised short-term priorities: temporary Ebola treatment units, short-term contract clinicians that were desperately needed at that time... Most of those investments dried up after the Ebola outbreak. This is a similar experience [after] many emergencies... attention shifts and the meagre development resources are directed elsewhere.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa