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Volume 23, Number 11—November 2017
Research Letter

The Breadth of Viruses in Human Semen

Alex P. SalamComments to Author  and Peter W. Horby
Author affiliations: University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

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Zika virus RNA is frequently detected in the semen of men after Zika virus infection. To learn more about persistence of viruses in genital fluids, we searched PubMed for relevant articles. We found evidence that 27 viruses, across a broad range of virus families, can be found in human semen.

The finding by Atkinson et al. that Zika virus RNA is frequently detected in the semen of men after infection (1) highlights our knowledge gaps regarding the persistence of viruses in genital fluids, especially semen. Replicating Zika virus (2), like Ebola and Marburg viruses (3), has been isolated from semen and has been sexually transmitted. However, it is probable that many more viruses capable of causing viremia (presence of virus in the blood) can be found in semen. Seeding to the male reproductive tract may frequently occur in the context of viremia because the blood–testes/deferens/epididymis barriers are imperfect barriers to viruses, especially in the presence of systemic or local inflammation (4). Virus may persist even if incapable of replicating within the male reproductive tract because the testes are immunologically privileged (4); that is, within the testes, the immune response is restricted to enable the survival of sperm, which are immunogenic. Virus may also be transmitted to semen as a result of survival and replication within the accessory glands (5).

To investigate the breadth of viruses in semen, we performed a PubMed search by using the terms “virus* AND semen OR sperm* OR seminal.” We imposed no date or language restrictions. This search returned 3,818 results. We screened the titles, abstracts, and full text articles for data that described detection of viruses in semen by nucleic acid amplification or detection, antigen detection, replication in cell culture, or replication in an animal system. We restricted the results to viruses capable of causing viremia. Where we found evidence for virus in semen, we then searched PubMed for evidence of sexual transmission by using the terms “(name of virus) AND sex* AND Transm*.”

Our search revealed that 27 viruses that can result in viremia have been found in human semen (Table). For many of these, data on sexual transmission are lacking. Of these 27 viruses, many cause chronic or latent infection (e.g., HIV virus, cytomegalovirus). However, several cause acute infections, including Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, and chikungunya viruses. Of those causing acute infections, only Zika and Ebola viruses have been systematically screened for in semen (i.e., in case series or cohort studies rather than case reports). These 27 viruses come from diverse families, suggesting that the presence of many viruses in semen is unlikely to be exclusively dependent on specific or conserved viral epitopes, ability of virus to replicate within the male reproductive tract, or common mechanisms of immune evasion. Other factors that may also influence whether viruses exist in semen are level of viremia, inflammatory mediators (altering blood-barrier permeability), systemic immunosuppression, male reproductive tract immune responses, presence of sexually transmitted diseases, and virus structural stability. In mammals, numerous viruses are detectable in semen, including viruses that can cause disease in humans, such as Japanese encephalitis virus, foot and mouth disease virus, parainfluenza virus, and paravaccinia virus (6). Several other viruses that result in viremia can cause orchitis and have been detected in human testes, suggesting the possibility that these viruses may also be detectable in semen. These viruses include influenza virus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, phlebotomus fever virus, cocksackie B virus, echovirus, dengue virus, systemic acute respiratory syndrome virus, parvovirus, smallpox virus, vaccinia virus, and rubella virus (7).

Given these findings, the following questions need to be addressed: which viruses are shed and remain viable in semen, for how long, and at what concentrations? The answers to these questions have implications for risks for sexual transmission and, therefore, embryonic infection, congenital disease, miscarriage, and effects on epidemiologic and transmission models. The presence of virus in the male reproductive tract may increase the risk for acquisition of sexually transmitted infections and may reduce male fertility through spermatogonial stem cell infection or local inflammation. Infection of spermatozoa could result in transmission of virus-induced mutations to subsequent generations, thereby elevating risks for cancer and other disorders. Indeed, when virus has been detected in human semen, the extent to which virus existence and replication occurs within spermatozoa is unclear (8). Not all therapeutics will cross the male reproductive tract–blood barriers, and viruses may persist in semen despite systemic clearance of virus, highlighting the need to consider the male reproductive tract–blood barriers when choosing therapeutic agents in clinical trials. Virus within the male reproductive tract can also be genetically distinct from virus in other compartments, including blood (9), which has implications for gene-based vaccines and therapeutics.

The presence of viruses in semen is probably more widespread than currently appreciated, and the absence of virus in genital secretions should not be assumed for traditionally non–sexually transmitted viruses. The investigation of virus detection and persistence in semen across a range of viruses is useful for clinical and public health reasons, in particular for viruses that lead to high mortality or morbidity rates or to epidemics.

Dr. Salam is a clinician and clinical researcher for the United Kingdom Public Health Rapid Support Team. His research interests are clinical trials in epidemic diseases. 

Dr. Horby is Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at the University of Oxford. His research is focused on improving the clinical and public health response to emerging and epidemic-prone infectious diseases in high- and low-income settings.



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DOI: 10.3201/eid2311.171049

Table of Contents – Volume 23, Number 11—November 2017

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Please use the form below to submit correspondence to the authors or contact them at the following address:

Alex Paddy Salam, Epidemic Diseases Research Group, University of Oxford, Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, Roosevelt Drive, Oxford OX3 7BN, UK

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