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‘It’s a Question That Has to Be Asked’: Scientists Wonder If Ebola Could Be Transmitted Through the Skin

“We need a lot more information."

While Ebola mutating to go airborne and thus becoming much easier to contract has been deemed an unlikely possibility by scientists, there is another transmission mode that health professionals say needs to be considered: through the skin.

Right now, it is known that the Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with infected bodily fluids. To infect a person, virus needs to cross mucus membranes — their eyes, mouth, nose, a cut, etc. — to enter their system.

But scientists at the National Academy's Institute of Medicine's workshop Monday wondered if it could pass through an individual's skin as well.

Thomas Ksiarek with the University of Texas Medical Branch said the virus' ability to penetrate the skin has not been dismissed as a possibility, Reuters reported.

"Does bleach or hand sanitizer make the skin more susceptible?" Peters said, according to Reuters. "It's a question that has to be asked."

A lab technician works in a mobile lab at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. The federal government is spending an extra $30.5 million on programs to shore up Canada's readiness to deal with Ebola, Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Monday. (AP/Lyle Stafford, Pool) A lab technician works in a mobile lab at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. The federal government is spending an extra $30.5 million on programs to shore up Canada's readiness to deal with Ebola, Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Monday. (AP/Lyle Stafford, Pool)

Dr. Andrew Pavia added that the possibility of the virus spreading before people exhibit symptoms is still on the table as well, Reuters reported. Health officials in the U.S. have maintained that a person with the virus is not contagious until he or she begins exhibiting symptoms.

Other questions scientists continue to tackle with Ebola include if the type of bodily fluid affects transmissibility or incubation time and how best to disinfect surfaces, according to Reuters. The workshop's website also said that discussions included the "real-world use of personal protective equipment (PPE) among non-traditional workers or others that may be exposed to infected individuals or contaminated materials, including real-time training and education."

Overall, when it comes to beating the virus in the long run, which has infected more than 13,000 people and killed more than 4,900 primarily in West African countries, the science behind Ebola needs to be better understood.

“We need a lot more information about the virology, the clinical presentation and the epidemiology of this virus,” Michael Osterholm with the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy told Nature. “Nobody underestimates the difficulty of doing that research in these settings, but it is really important to get this information.”

Here's a little bit about what else is going on with the Ebola outbreak:

  • Boyfriend barred from campus: The boyfriend of nurse Kaci Hickox, who successfully protested quarantine protocols in a couple of states mandating them for health workers who treated Ebola patients, is not allowed on the University of Maine, Fort Kent campus where he is a nursing student. Ted Wilbur told reporters the university asked him to stay away because Hickox was in the news amid attempts to quarantine her after she returned from treating Ebola patient in West Africa. The university contends he voluntarily agreed to stay away, and the voluntary agreement remained in effect Monday. Hickox, who has not shown symptoms of having the virus, is now allowed to go anywhere in the state, according to a judge's ruling Friday, but she said she planned to stay away from public places out of respect for local residents.
  • What about the children?: More than 4,000 children have been orphaned in West Africa due to Ebola, according to  UNICEF Ebola coordinator Dr. Peter Salama. The organization is doubling its staff to fight the virus in Guinea, Liberia and in Sierra Leone, where children make up 20 percent of all cases of the deadly virus. Salama said Monday that schools are closed and children are confined to their homes and discouraged from playing with other kids. Salama says "death is all around them."

Promise Cooper, 16, Emmanuel Junior Cooper, 11, and Benson Cooper, 15, sit at their St. Paul Bridge home in Monrovia, Liberia. The Cooper children are now orphans, having lost their mother Princess in July, and their father Emmanuel in August. Their 5-month-old baby brother Success also succumbed to the virus in August. Ruth, their 13-year-old sister is being hospitalized with Ebola. The three never fell sick to the deadly disease. (AP/Jerome Delay) Promise Cooper, 16, Emmanuel Junior Cooper, 11, and Benson Cooper, 15, sit at their St. Paul Bridge home in Monrovia, Liberia. The Cooper children are now orphans, having lost their mother Princess in July, and their father Emmanuel in August. Their 5-month-old baby brother Success also succumbed to the virus in August. Ruth, their 13-year-old sister is being hospitalized with Ebola. The three never fell sick to the deadly disease. (AP/Jerome Delay)

  • Quarantine broken in desperation for food: Thousands of people in Sierra Leone violated quarantine orders in a desperate attempt to find food because deliveries had not reached them. The government, with help from the U.N.'s World Food Program, is tasked with delivering food and other services to those people. But Jeanne Kamara of Christian Aid in Sierra Leone said Tuesday that there are many "nooks and crannies" in the country that are being missed. Her agency and others that belong to the Disasters Emergency Committee umbrella organization are trying to fill the gaps.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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