Lifelong Ebola Immunity?

Fourteen survivors from the first known Ebola outbreak in 1976 appear to have developed immunity against the disease, according to a study published this week in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. The study showed that the survivors blood contains antibodies that protect against, and in some cases even destroy, the Ebola virus.

An earlier study had shown that Ebola survivors have some immunity after 14 years, but this new study shows that protection lasts for at least 40 years. The Ebola virus is known for hanging around longer than anyone would like, frequently hibernating in eyes and semen. This “tenacity might explain why survivors continue to produce antibodies against it, long after they’ve finally cleared it from their bodies.”

All of the 14 people they studied still carry antibodies that recognize at least one of the Ebola virus’s proteins, and four had antibodies that could completely neutralize the virus. “Those are the kinds of responses you’d like to see in a vaccine—long-lasting and robust,” says Rimoin, “which means that these antibodies are of great value to science.”

Ebola’s Revenge

Ebola is a lingerer. It’s that guest at your party that stays even when everyone else is leaving, continuing to drink from leftover open bottles of wine. It’s that annoying friend who has overstayed their welcome even though you have made it perfectly clear you have very important, but very vague things to do and while you can’t quite bring yourself to physically usher them out, you are about to set off the fire alarm in a desperate attempt to “politely” get them to leave.

Ebola may linger in semen for 2 years, or more! No one really knows yet, because while Ebola has been happening since at least 1976 (WHO fact sheet), no one was invested in funding studies to better understand Ebola until 2014, when it seemed like the United States could possibly have a Hot Zone situation on their hands. Side note: The Hot Zone is one of my favorite books and I highly recommend it. I can also recommend the audio version of the book, especially if you are on a long trip driving more than 4 hours at a time. It will definitely keep you awake.

Other lasting Ebola effects occur in the eyes. Survivors in West Africa, many of them young children, have developed cataracts. The NY Times reports:

Cataracts usually afflict the old, not the young, but doctors have been shocked to find them in Ebola survivors as young as 5. And for reasons that no one understands, some of those children have the toughest, thickest cataracts that eye surgeons have encountered, along with scarring deep inside the eye…

There are about 17,000 Ebola survivors in West Africa, and researchers estimate that 20 percent of them have had a type of severe inflammation inside the eye, uveitis. It can cause blindness, but even if it resolves and sight returns, cataracts can quickly follow. Usually, just one eye is affected.

Many Ebola survivors have been found to have “major mobility, cognitive and visual limitations” as well as “higher levels of depression, anxiety, fatigue and pain. They also showed difficulties in concentrating and remembering and most of them suffered from blurred vision.”

Finally, what about the people tasked with gathering the bodies?

Not only did they stand a high chance of catching the virus themselves, they also risked beatings from mobs of hostile locals, who either refused to believe the virus existed, or blamed the health workers for spreading it…

But the masks, gloves and rubber boots were no protection against a contagion of a different sort.

For many of his colleagues, the horrors they saw every day have stayed in their minds ever since, driving some towards madness and others to drink and depression.

There is some good news, though. An experimental Ebola vaccine has been found to protect against Ebola for one year.  When the next outbreak happens the world will at least be better prepared.