After testing swabs and tissue samples from the bodies of deceased Ebola-infected monkeys, scientists determined the virus can stay alive for up to 7 days in a dead victim. They also found that non-infectious viral genetic material can remain for up to 70 days after death.

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The Ebola virus, isolated in November 2014 in a secure US lab from blood samples of Mali patients.
Image credit: NIAID

The researchers – from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – report their findings in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The authors note that until their findings, the efficiency of detecting Ebola virus from corpse samples had not been systematically studied.

They say the study shows it is possible to catch Ebola from dead victims of the disease for several days after death and confirms the importance of safe handling and burial of their bodies.

The study also confirms that taking mouth swabs of bodies is a reliable and safer alternative for determining whether a person has died of Ebola than riskier procedures, such as tissue biopsy.

However, the authors also note that mouth swabs may not be a reliable diagnostic alternative to taking blood samples in the case of people who may have been in the early stages of Ebola virus infection when they died – presumably from other causes.

To stem an outbreak, it is important to determine whether people are carrying Ebola when they die, not only to assess the spread of the disease but also to decide whether it is necessary to trace the people they may have been in contact with.

For the study, the researchers tested samples from five deceased macaques used in Ebola studies that were euthanized after showing signs of disease.

They put the bodies in a chamber that simulated the environmental conditions in West Africa – the location of the current outbreak, which is thought to be the worst in the history of the disease.

Over a period of 10 weeks, they took samples from seven body surfaces and four internal organs.

Tests revealed that live Ebola virus was present in surface swabs for up to 7 days and in tissue samples of internal organs for up to 3 days after death.

The team also found viral RNA in several swab and tissue types up to 10 weeks after death.

In the West African countries affected by the current Ebola outbreak, it is customary for members of a dead person’s family or community to be involved in the washing and handling of the body in preparation for burial.

When the body belongs to a victim of Ebola, this religious and cultural tradition can unfortunately help spread the disease. According to Dr. Pierre Formenty, a World Health Organization (WHO) expert on Ebola, at least 20% of new infections occur during burials of people who died from Ebola virus disease.

An important element in the control of the outbreak is deciding how best to intervene in this practice without undermining the traditions and needs of the bereaved and losing the trust and cooperation of communities.

In November 2014, Medical News Today reported a new WHO protocol on safe and dignified burials of people who have died from suspected or confirmed Ebola virus disease. The procedures include meaningful and safe alternatives for touching and bathing the deceased.