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Questions Remain About Ebola’s Survival in the Environment

Environmental transmission can’t be discounted, researchers say

The Ebola virus travels from person to person through direct contact with infected body fluids. But how long can the virus survive on glass surfaces or countertops? Or in wastewater, for example, when liquid wastes from a patient end up in the sewage system?

In the December 9 edition of Environmental Science & Technology Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists review the latest research to find answers to these questions.

Dr. Kyle Bibby of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues explain that knowing how long the deadly pathogen survives on surfaces, in water, or in liquid droplets is critical to developing effective disinfection practices to prevent the spread of the disease.

Currently, the guidelines from the World Health Organization recommend that liquid waste from patients be flushed down the toilet or disposed of in a latrine. However, patients’ solid waste and liquid waste from Ebola research laboratories are supposed to be disinfected before entering the sewage system. Bibby’s team set out to determine what research can and can’t tell us about these practices.

The researchers reviewed scientific papers for data on how long the virus can live in the environment. They found a dearth of published studies on the matter. That means no one knows for sure whether the virus can go airborne from a surface and cause infection, or how long it remains active in water, wastewater, or sludge, the researchers say.

The available evidence suggests that the Ebola virus is inactivated more rapidly than or at a rate comparable to that of typically monitored enteric viruses, according to the authors. In addition, while environmental exposure is not the dominant exposure route, available data suggest that it is imprudent to dismiss the potential of environmental transmission without further evidence.

The authors conclude that Ebola’s persistence outside the body needs more careful investigation.

Sources: ACS; December 10, 2014; and ESTIL; December 9, 2014.


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