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Tracking the Marburg Virus - Are Animals The Source?

  • Cindy Shiner

The outbreak of Marburg virus in Angola continues to claim lives. At least 192 people of the more than 200 who have contracted the virus have died. The Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever spreads through contact with bodily fluids and can kill rapidly. The first recorded outbreak of Marburg occurred in a laboratory in Marburg, Germany, and was traced to monkeys from Uganda.

Researchers are still trying to determine where the outbreak in Angola might have originated. Alfons Van Gompel, an associate professor of tropical medicine at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, cites a Marburg outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998 as a possible clue.

“There it was clear that being a gold miner was an independent risk factor so the hypothesis that it must be small animals, very probably, in those mines, that might be the reservoir,” he said. “I think small mammals … might be the final reservoir but at this moment we don’t have any evidence.”

He said specialists believe that the Marburg outbreak might have occurred in more places in Angola than originally thought. “So it must be widespread in nature but at a big distance from human beings. It must be on very rare occasions that humans come into contact with the virus. Once it is in the human being … by giving care to those people in the African context it can easily jump from man to man,” he said.

Professor Van Gompel said there are many viruses that can be transmitted from animals to humans but only few have the potential to cause epidemics. “The most feared are the viral hemorrhagic fevers. Once they are within the human population there may be a rapid secondary spread and the most feared are Ebola, Marburg, Lassa and Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever because of their epidemic potential,” he said.

Professor Van Gompel said Africans who eat bushmeat should take precautions. “I think that the general hygienic rules pertain here,” he said. “First of all they should probably live in circumstances where they’re not dependent on that bushmeat but the reality is they do. They must be warned, as was necessary in Gabon and Congo, not to touch carcasses, not to touch the dead bodies of animals, which might have been killed by the viruses, as we have learned in the Ebola epidemic in Gabon and Congo.”

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