The World Health Organization announced that Equatorial Guinea has confirmed its first-ever outbreak of Marburg disease, saying the Ebola-related virus is responsible for at least nine deaths in the tiny Western African country.
In a statement on Monday, the U.N. health agency confirmed the epidemic after samples from Equatorial Guinea were sent to a lab in Senegal to pinpoint the cause of the disease after an alert from a local health official last week.
The WHO said there are currently nine deaths and 16 suspected cases with symptoms including fever, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting. The agency said it was sending medical experts to help officials in Equatorial Guinea stop the outbreak and was also sending protective equipment for hundreds of workers.
What is the Marburg virus?
Like Ebola, the Marburg virus originates in bats and spreads between people via close contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, or surfaces, like contaminated bedsheets.
The disease is a highly infectious viral hemorrhagic fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is spawned by the animal-borne RNA virus of the same Filoviridae family as the Ebola virus.
Without treatment, Marburg can be fatal in up to 88% of people, according to the WHO, depending on the virus strain and quality of case management.
According to the CDC, Marburg was probably first transmitted to people from African fruit bats as a result of prolonged exposure from people working in mines and caves that have Rousettus bat colonies.
The rare virus was first identified in 1967 after it caused simultaneous outbreaks of disease in laboratories in Marburg, Germany, and Belgrade, Serbia. Seven people died who were exposed to the virus while conducting research on monkeys.
What are the symptoms of the Marburg virus?
Symptoms, including high fever, severe headache, chills and malaise, can begin to show up “abruptly,” according to the WHO. Other symptoms include nausea, jaundice, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Muscle aches and cramping are also common symptoms.
According to the CDC, a non-itchy rash may appear on the chest, back or stomach around day five. Clinical diagnosis of Marburg “can be difficult,” the agency said, with many of the symptoms similar to other infectious diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever and Ebola.
In fatal cases, death typically occurs between days eight and nine after symptoms of the disease appear, and is generally preceded by severe blood loss and hemorrhaging, as well as multi-organ dysfunction.
During “severe haemorrhagic manifestations,” patients may have blood in their vomit or feces, which if “often accompanied by bleeding from the nose, gums and vagina,” according to the WHO.
What is the treatment for the Marburg virus?
There are no authorized vaccines or drugs to treat Marburg, but rehydration treatment to alleviate symptoms can improve the chances of survival.
According to the CDC, supportive hospital therapy can improve survival rates, such as rehydration with oral or intravenous fluids, maintaining oxygen levels, using drug therapies and treating specific symptoms as they arise.
Some “experimental treatments” for Marburg have been tested in animals but not in humans, the CDC said.
In a 2004 outbreak in Angola, Marburg killed 90% of the 252 people infected. Last year, there were two reported Marburg deaths in Ghana.
Where have outbreaks been reported?
Outbreaks of Marburg disease have been reported over a dozen times since 1967, mainly in African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Angola and Uganda, according to the WHO.
Outbreaks have also been reported in Germany, Yugoslavia, Russia and the Netherlands, in addition to one 2018 case in the U.S., observed in a traveler who had recently returned from a trip to Uganda.