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Scientists Begin Expedition to Trace Source of Uganda Marburg Outbreak

  • Arjun Kohli

Scientists have arrived in Uganda's capital Kampala to prepare for an investigation into tracking the source of the latest outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus in western Uganda. Arjun Kohli has more on the story from our bureau in Nairobi.

The international group of investigative scientists will enter a remote cave in western Uganda on Monday. The cave is reported to house around five million bats, some of which may be housing the deadly Marburg virus, which comes from the same family as Ebola.

The group hopes to capture at least a thousand bats which they will test in a nearby makeshift laboratory. They may also take blood samples from villagers in the area to check for antibodies that would indicate exposure to Marburg.

Marburg is a rare disease for which there is still no known cure. It causes vomiting, diarrhea and headaches and in severe cases, the central nervous system is attacked and patients may bleed from the ears and eyes. The death rate is estimated at about 25 percent.

The virus killed a 29-year-old mineworker last month.

A spokesperson from the World Health Organization, Gregory Härtl, tells VOA the scientists will be wearing protective gear to enter the caves, but he adds, there is little chance of the outbreak spreading.

"As far as we understand, this cave in the west of Uganda, and the incubation period for the current cases have almost completely run their course so the chance of any more cases occurring from or based on what has happened in this mine in Uganda are very, very, very slim and you have to touch the blood of another person in order to get infected. The chances of anyone getting infected by just being in Uganda are nil," he explained.

The group of international scientific investigators comes from institutes such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Doctors Without Borders.

Härtl tells VOA that the mines have been closed down but for the scientific research. Härtl says the expedition is vital given the limited knowledge and exposure scientists have of the hemorrhagic fever and the Marburg virus.

"We still don't know what the reservoir of the Marburg virus is, what kind of animals it lives in, where the virus resides so to speak and certainly if it is in bats as is one of the suppositions and this mine is filled with up to five million bats and workers are continuing to go into the mine to mine for lead and gold that is one an immediate danger to the miners and two in the longer term the more we know about the behavior of this virus, where it lives, under what conditions it can survive, the more we are able to control it," he said. "When it does infect a human is an extremely dangerous virus, it can kill up to 90 per cent of the people it infects and in past outbreaks it has done that."

The largest Marburg outbreak was in Angola in 2005 when at least 200 people were killed.

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