What is Marburg virus disease?

Two people have died in Ghana after contracting the highly infectious illness

Marburg virus particles
(Image credit: Image Point FR/NIH/NIAID/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ghana has confirmed its first cases of the deadly Marburg virus, a highly infectious disease similar to Ebola, after two people who tested positive for the illness died earlier this month.

The two patients who died in hospital in the southern Ashanti region tested positive for the virus on 10 July, and have now been verified by a laboratory in Senegal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Medical staff in Ghana have reported that 98 people are now under quarantine as suspected contact cases, although none has developed any symptoms so far according to WHO, which is supporting the country’s response to the outbreak.

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“Health authorities have responded swiftly, getting a head start preparing for a possible outbreak,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “This is good because without immediate and decisive action, Marburg can easily get out of hand.”

What is Marburg virus?

The virus, which is similar to Ebola, is transmitted to people “from fruit bats and spreads between humans through the transmission of bodily fluids”, said the BBC. “It is a severe, often fatal illness,” the broadcaster added.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • muscle pains
  • vomiting blood
  • bleeding.

How is it treated?

No known treatment exists for Marburg virus disease (MVD), but doctors say drinking plenty of water and treating specific symptoms improves a patient’s chances of survival. The WHO is also “exploring treatments involving blood products, immune therapies and drug therapies”, according to ABC News.

How did it begin?

The first ever Marburg cases were in the German cities of Marburg and Frankfurt, and in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1967. Thirty-one people contracted the disease and seven died.

Since then, there have been a dozen major Marburg outbreaks, mostly in southern and eastern Africa, according to the WHO. Fatality rates have varied from 24% to 88% in past outbreaks depending on the virus strain and case management, with the average fatality rate for MVD being about 50%.

According to the global health agency, the initial outbreaks were “associated with laboratory work using African green monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops) imported from Uganda”.

There have subsequently been sporadic outbreaks in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda.

The virus killed more than 200 people in Angola in 2005, the deadliest outbreak on record.

It is only the second time that MVD has been discovered in West Africa. Last year, one case was confirmed in Guinea, but the outbreak was declared over in September, five weeks after the case was identified, said the BBC.

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