Marburg virus: What is the deadly disease and what you should know

With a death rate of up to 88 per cent, this Ebola-like virus can be transmitted between humans

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Latest: UAE advises travellers from Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea to isolate

The deadly Marburg virus has reached Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, with a total of 21 cases confirmed in the countries.

The World Health Organisation is working with both countries to tackle the outbreaks by providing expert assistance and supplying vital materials.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have warned citizens against travelling to Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea over the outbreaks.

Equatorial Guinea last month announced that the Ebola-like disease had spread from rural areas of the country to the commercial capital Bata. It has confirmed at least 13 cases to date, while in Tanzania, in the west of the continent, at least five people have died among eight cases.

Cameroon detected two suspected cases of Marburg virus in February, soon after initial reports of an unknown, deadly haemorrhagic fever in neighbouring Equatorial Guinea.

Another suspected case was identified in Spain's Valencia region in the same month.

Marburg is still considered “a very rare disease in people”, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, but “when it occurs, it has the potential to spread” and can be fatal.

Sometimes involving bleeding from the ears and eyes, the disease has emerged several times over the past half century or so.

Emergency preparations were under way in Ghana in July 2022 for a potential outbreak of the deadly Marburg disease after two people were reported to have died from infection.

It can kill about nine in 10 of those infected.

There have been 12 major Marburg outbreaks since it was first discovered in 1967 in Germany, mostly in southern and eastern Africa.

Here we look at Marburg disease, where it comes from, how it spreads and what is being done to contain the latest outbreak.

WHO on Marburg virus: 'Very similar to Ebola but we have no treatment'

WHO on Marburg virus: 'Very similar to Ebola but we have no treatment'

What happened in the last outbreak?

This is the first West African case of Marburg that occurred in July 2022, resulted in the patient dying. It was only after postmortem lab tests that the cause of death was identified and the World Health Organisation was informed.

Intensive contact-tracing was carried out to prevent further spread, with officials getting in touch with more than 140 people who may have been exposed to the virus.

What is Marburg virus disease?

This disease is named after the German town where, along with Frankfurt and Belgrade, it was identified in 1967 after spreading from laboratory monkeys imported from Uganda.

Other outbreaks have happened in Uganda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and South Africa.

Cases have also been reported in the US and the Netherlands, although these were traced back to Uganda.

The virus originates in fruit bats, which do not fall ill but pass the pathogen to people, directly or through other species such as monkeys or, possibly, pigs.

It spreads between humans when blood or other bodily fluids from an infected person come into contact with the broken skin or mucous membranes (such as those in the mouth, nose or eyes) of another person.

The WHO reports that the disease can also be caught from contaminated surfaces or materials, such as clothing or bedding.

No drugs or treatment

It takes between two days and three weeks for the disease to emerge after exposure to the virus.

Symptoms include fever, headaches, muscle aches and pains, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Patients may have what is described as a “ghostlike” appearance as the disease progresses, the WHO said.

Severe bleeding may develop in the gums and nose, along with areas where blood samples have been taken or intravenous drips inserted.

Fever continues and the patient may become aggressive or confused.

Death may result a little more than a week after symptoms show.

In the largest outbreak, in 2005 in Angola, 329 of the 374 cases proved fatal — a rate of 88 per cent.

While no medicine works against the Marburg virus specifically (although drugs and immune therapies are being developed), treatment of symptoms and rehydration improve survival.

What happens now?

No outbreak since the one in 2005 has caused more than a handful of deaths, so officials hope to contain this latest emergence.

The WHO said that it was increasing its epidemiological surveillance in Equatorial Guinea.

The Central African country has so far reported nine deaths as well as 16 suspected cases of Marburg virus disease, with symptoms including fever, fatigue and bloodstained vomit and diarrhoea.

“Surveillance in the field has been intensified,” said George Ameh, WHO's country representative in Equatorial Guinea.

“Contact tracing, as you know, is a cornerstone of the response. We have ... redeployed the Covid-19 teams that were there for contact tracing and quickly retrofitted them to really help us out.”

Equatorial Guinea has quarantined more than 200 people and restricted movement last week in its Kie-Ntem province, where the haemorrhagic fever was first detected.

“We're working on a 30-day response plan where we should be able to quantify what are the exact measures and quantify what are the exact needs,” Mr Ameh said.

While there is a high risk of the disease causing further cases nationally, the WHO said, the chances of global outbreak are low.

Updated: June 01, 2023, 7:54 AM