Ebola virus baffles scientists yet again. Turns out the virus can hide and become dormant in pregnancy, with no outward symptoms. A case report published recently shows how a 31-year-old woman in late pregnancy went to a hospital in Liberia complaining of mild stomach pain – possibly related to pregnancy.
Routine testing for Ebola diagnosed her with the virus, though she had no obvious symptoms, such as body pain, vomiting and diarrhea, or bleeding. After three days, however, Ebola symptoms emerged. Several days later died along with the fetus – according to a letter published June 18 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The unique immunologic status of pregnant women might alter disease presentation and progression,” wrote Dr. Emma Akerlund of Doctors Without Borders and two colleagues. “This case highlights the challenges that clinicians may face in assessing pregnant women for possible infections, including Ebola, and the potential risk for health care staff.”
The researchers suspect the woman’s reduced immune response — a normal part of pregnancy — could have allowed the virus to remain in her body undetected for some time.
It’s possible that she could have infected others before her symptoms appeared, the researchers said. But experts said the implications really aren’t clear.
“We don’t know enough about Ebola to tell what all the complications might be,” said Dr. Debra Spicehandler, co-chief of infectious disease at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She had no role in the study.
“Fortunately, however, this appears to be rare,” Sanders said. “You have to have the conjunction of immunosuppression with the infection.”
The main flaw in the study is that this is a single case, said Thomas Geisbert, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“If it turns out that there are a fair number of cases where high levels of virus are detected in body fluids from asymptomatic patients, then, yes, that could have important implications in explaining the magnitude of this outbreak and certainly for how outbreaks are managed,” said Geisbert, who wasn’t involved in the study.
The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa — the worst in history — has infected more than 27,000 people and killed more than 11,000 of them since late 2013. Health officials believe the worst of the epidemic is over, even though a small number of cases continue to surface
David Sanders, an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., explained that it’s not Ebola itself that causes the symptoms, it’s the body’s immune response that causes the symptoms.
It’s entirely possible that someone whose immune system is suppressed can carry Ebola and not show the classic symptoms, he said.
Sanders added there may be others who carry Ebola without obvious signs because their immune system is subdued.
While noting this is something doctors can take into account, Sanders added, “I don’t think it’s something we need to panic about.”
He believes the mode of transmission remains the same even when the virus is concealed.