Ebola Virus Lives On In Recovered Patient’s Eye

Medical teams thought that the man had made a full recovery from his Ebola infection, but later found that the virus was still present in his left eyeball. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week has all of the details on the case, writes Sydney Lupkin for ABC News.

Ebola Virus Lives On In Recovered Patient's Eye

Ebola survivor reports eye problems

Although the patient was discharged after doctors found that his blood was free of the virus, three months later they discovered that it was still present in his body. In fact, the virus turned his blue eye green until his body managed to fully fight off the virus.

The previously healthy 43-year-old had been working at an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone before he was diagnosed with the virus in September last year. After his condition was diagnosed he was taken to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where he spent 12 days using a ventilator and 24 days hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Following the treatment, his blood and urine both returned negative results after doctors ran tests for the Ebola virus. However 9 weeks later the patient began to complain of redness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and pain in his left eye. Doctors diagnosed him with inflammation of the eyeball, and tests showed that the Ebola virus was present inside the eye. Interestingly, tests for the virus in his tears came back negative.

Anonymous patient reveals himself

The study does not name the patient, but a report in The New York Times identified him as Dr. Ian Crozier. The doctor revealed himself as the anonymous Ebola patient back in December, and is one of the named authors of the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“He’s a full partner in his own investigation and the other investigations going forward,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Crozier undertook medical training at Vanderbilt and also spoke to students at the university in April. “All of this is in the context of his sense of mission and being devoted to the medical care of people in underprivileged circumstances abroad.”

Crozier has reportedly since returned to Africa in order to study the effects of an Ebola infection on survivors. According to Schaffner, Ebola can cause long term eye problems in former patients, and sometimes even blindness. Our eyes are slightly separate from the rest of our immune system, and Schaffner believes this could be one reason why the Ebola virus is present there long after blood and urine samples test negative.

Could the virus survive in other parts of the body?

Other “immune privileged” sites include the central nervous system, testicles and cartilage, and experts suggest that further research is needed to ascertain whether the Ebola virus is capable of living on in these places.

The eye can slowly recover due to a combination of treatment and the body’s immune response, however Schaffner claims that Crozier is still suffering from lower back problems as a result of the Ebola infection.

According to World Health Organization figures, there were 26,312 cases of Ebola as of April 26 this year, including 10,899 deaths. As well as breaking the record for the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, there were also the largest number of Ebola survivors, claims the study.

“All of these long-term consequences of Ebola infection in survival are now only beginning to be documented, and he wants to be part of that because he sees these people now entering into a post-Ebola world,” Schaffner said of Crozier.

Ongoing struggle against deadly virus

More help is needed for survivors in the countries which were hit hardest by the latest outbreak, including Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Many survivors have started to report problems with their vision, but eye specialists are not very common in the worst affected areas.

The World Health Organization has also urged survivors to be especially careful about practicing safe sex. It has been suggested that fragments of the Ebola virus could survive in the semen of male survivors for a number of months after they have been declared safe. Experts have warned that sexual contact between a male survivor and a previously healthy female could lead to the transmission of the virus.

Scientists are basing their theory on evidence from other viruses, and it has not been proven to be true in the case of Ebola. However the WHO is urging male survivors to abstain or practice safe sex until two semen tests for Ebola have come back negative. The organization also warns that it is “theoretically possible” for the virus to be passed from a female survivor to a previously healthy male through sexual contact.