New Cases Of Ebola In Liberia Show How Much We Don't Know About The Virus : Goats and Soda Researchers need to figure out how Ebola can — and can't — be spread by survivors. And health workers need to don protective equipment once again.
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Puzzling Ebola Death Shows How Little We Know About The Virus

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Puzzling Ebola Death Shows How Little We Know About The Virus

Puzzling Ebola Death Shows How Little We Know About The Virus

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Liberia, more than a hundred people are being monitored for Ebola after a teenager died of the disease yesterday. The teenager's father and brother have tested positive. The new cases come after Liberia was declared free of the virus twice. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports there are new questions about what it will take to finally end this epidemic.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Liberian health officials say that a 15-year-old boy sought medical care last week at several clinics in Monrovia before finally being directed to an Ebola treatment unit. More than two dozen health care workers who came into contact with him are now among the nearly 160 people people being monitored for signs of the disease. How the teenager and two of his family members got infected with the virus is still under investigation. The World Health Organization declared in May and then again in September that transmission of Ebola in Liberia had come to a halt. Top WHO officials say the boy and his family hadn't been in contact with any known Ebola survivors or done anything else that would've put them at obvious risk of getting the disease.

CARISSA GUILD: I think it is a surprise for us all, but it also just demonstrates how much we don't know about the virus.

BEAUBIEN: Carissa Guild is in charge of Doctors Without Borders operations in Liberia.

GUILD: I think in Liberia, now especially, the third time that it's come back, I think even if we were thinking that maybe it's over and that everything is over, it just shows us once again that Ebola still could come back. And we don't really necessarily know where or how. We still have to keep up our vigilance, and we still have to be protecting ourselves as health care workers.

BEAUBIEN: Researchers recently have found that the Ebola virus can survive in semen for nine months or more. This was far longer than what had been the standard message to male Ebola survivors earlier in the epidemic. The original advice was to abstain from sex or use condoms for three months after they'd recovered. Then, in March of this year, a Liberian woman got Ebola and died in what's become the first documented case of sexually transmission of the virus. Her sex partner had been discharged from a treatment unit and been declared Ebola-free six months prior to infecting her.

William Fischer from the University of North Carolina has been studying survivors in Liberia and looking specifically at how the Ebola virus persists in some of them in some parts of their bodies.

WILLIAM FISCHER: The reality is the outbreak's not over. It's just changed.

BEAUBIEN: Last month, the Scottish nurse who'd recovered from Ebola in January had the virus come roaring back in her blood. This week, after the reemergence of the cases in Liberia, the Health Ministry is trying to determine exactly how these three family members were infected. In the meantime, medical clinics across Monrovia have stepped up infection control measures. Several doctors concede that health care workers let their guard down after Liberia was declared Ebola-free. They weren't wearing protective gowns, and some even went back to examining patients with their bare hands.

Rick Sacra, a missionary doctor with SIM at the ELWA Hospital on the outskirts of Monrovia, says as a result of these new cases, his clinic has ramped up infection control protocols and even scrambled to get some more protective clothing. But he's also noticed that ordinary Liberians are taking the new cases in stride.

RICK SACRA: I'm not seeing the public panicking and staying away from the hospital or anything like happened last year, so that's good. I'm encouraged by that.

BEAUBIEN: Sacra himself says he isn't worried about getting infected. He came down with Ebola in August of 2014 but survived. He now considers himself to be immune. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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