How Ebola Can Affect the Eyes

Female patient having eye examination

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The Ebola virus is a serious health concern. Ebola can be very dangerous and can affect the eyes. A study of an Ebola survivor shows how the virus can remain alive inside the eye for more than two months after treatment and recovery.

What Is Ebola?

The Ebola virus is a term used to describe a group of virus that causes hemorrhagic fever. Hemorrhagic fever means that a person becomes very ill and bleeds inside and outside the body. Symptoms include fever, muscle weakness, sore throat, and headaches. Unfortunately, the virus has a long incubation period (between 8-21 days) so an individual can be infected before showing any signs or symptoms. As an infected person becomes sick, kidney and liver function can decrease and significant bleeding can begin inside the body.

The Ebola virus is found mainly in African countries. The Ebola virus took its name from the Ebola river when it was first discovered in 1976. Ebola viruses are mainly found in primates in Africa and possibly the Philippines, and there are only occasional outbreaks of infection in humans. Ebola hemorrhagic fever occurs mainly in Africa in the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Uganda. It may occur in other African countries.

Ebola Infection

You can become infected by Ebola through direct contact with blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with the disease. You can still contract the disease from someone who has recently died from Ebola. Body fluids that can spread the virus include urine, saliva, sweat, vomit, breast milk, semen or feces. You can also contract Ebola by coming into contact with needles and syringes that are contaminated with body fluids. Although rare, a person can also become infected by coming in contact with fruit bats, apes and monkeys that carry the disease. However, the Ebola virus is not airborne.

Ebola is thought to be one of the most deadly viruses on our planet with a fatality rate of 50-90%. At this time, there is no cure or vaccine for the disease. Some people can survive with appropriate medical care but can have long-lasting medical problems after recovering.

Ebola and the Eyes

In a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers treated a doctor from Zimbabwe and an American citizen who became infected with Ebola while treating patients suffering from the Ebola virus. As the doctor was recovering, he developed acute uveitis and his eye pressure became elevated. Uveitis is an inflammation or swelling of the eye's uvea. The uvea is located in the center of the eye, between the sclera and the retina. Symptoms of uveitis may develop suddenly. The eye suddenly becomes red, painful, and sensitive to light. The doctor was treated with topical steroids and eye pressure-lowering medications. His eye healed and his vision returned to normal.

Approximately two months after he was discharged, the doctor underwent a comprehensive eye examination at the Emory Eye Center, 8-9 weeks after the virus had totally cleared from his bloodstream. During the examination, doctors performed a procedure called anterior chamber paracentesis. (Paracentesis is the removal of the fluid, called aqueous humor, from the front chamber of the eye.)

After studying the extracted fluid, the researchers found live Ebola virus from the eye that suffered uveitis. However, it was found that samples of tears and conjunctival tissue tested negative for Ebola. This is encouraging because it suggests that patients who recover from Ebola are not at risk of spreading the infection through casual contact.

What You Should Know

Ebola is a serious virus that can affect your eyesight. Special precautions should be taken after people appear to have recovered fully from Ebola. Health care workers should take special precautions and use personal protection equipment, especially those handling laboratory specimens and medical wastes, to avoid becoming infected with the virus.

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  • Persistence of Ebola Virus in Ocular Fluid During Convalescence, Jay B. Varkey, et al., New England Journal of Medicine, doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1500306, published online 7 May 2015.