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Explainer: What is the Ebola-like Marburg virus?

Published: Updated:

A severe, highly fatal virus called Marburg has been detected in Guinea, killing one and potentially spread to more than 150 others.

The case, detected last week in Gueckedou, marked the first time the virus has been spotted in West Africa, and has sparked a desperate scramble to find everyone that may have come into contact with the man who died. All of the people – about 155 - he met have now been traced and told to self-isolate. They are also being kept under observation for three weeks.

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No other cases have been detected yet — but the World Health Organization warned the affected village is near the country’s border with Sierra Leone and Liberia.

What is the Marburg virus?

The Marburg virus disease was first diagnosed in 1967 and is capable of causing haemorrhagic fever in humans and is similar to Ebola. The virus is one of the deadliest pathogens known to exist, killing between half and 90 per cent of everyone who gets infected.

How is it spread?

The virus is carried by fruit bats but can be spread between humans through blood and bodily fluids, as well as touching contaminated surfaces. Pathogens have tended to cross from animals to humans in the region because of their close interaction, notably in the hunting and eating of ‘bushmeat’ from the wild.

What are the symptoms?

Infected patients can resemble ghosts, with deep-set eyes and expressionless faces, according to the WHO. Other symptoms include headache, diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting. After five days, many patients start to bleed under the skin, in internal organs or from openings such as the mouth, eyes and ears. Patients often die from nervous system failure, not blood loss.

How is Marburg treated?

There is no vaccine or drug specifically directed to the virus. Only supportive care is available.

What are the experts saying?

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa has applauded “the alertness and the quick investigative action by Guinea’s health workers.” He added: “The potential for the Marburg virus to spread far and wide means we need to stop it in its tracks. We are working with the health authorities to implement a swift response that builds on Guinea’s past experience and expertise in managing Ebola, which is transmitted in a similar way.”

Dr Georges Ki-Zerbo, the WHO’s country head in Guinea, said Marburg had been circulating in animals, particularly bats, in southern Guinea and neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia.

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