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WHO Increases Efforts to Control Marburg Epidemic in Angola

The World Health Organization, WHO, says it is critical that the epidemic of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Northern Angola be brought under control in the next two weeks. So far the health agency has confirmed 200 cases of the disease, including 174 deaths.

The World Health Organization calls the Angola Marburg epidemic the worst known outbreak fever. It surpasses the previous total number of 148 cases recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC in 1998-2000. The epicenter of the epidemic is in the remote northern province of Uige, but WHO fears the epidemic could spread to neighboring countries.

One suspected case has been discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Samples have been sent for analysis to the Centers for Disease Control, CDC, in Atlanta.

Mike Ryan is director of WHO's Alert and Response Operations. He says needed assistance is getting to the country and health experts are beginning to have an impact on stemming the epidemic. But, he adds, the outbreak is not over.

"It requires deep commitment from the international and national authorities for the next four to six weeks at the very least and probably beyond,” he said. “It is important that this outbreak comes under control. The surveillance systems in surrounding countries have been heightened. There have been alert cases in the south of DRC. One incident in Matadi. This has been investigated by a joint WHO, Ministry of Health and CDC team. Samples have been taken and sent to CDC in Atlanta. All of the contacts are under follow-up and none are sick."

In addition, Dr. Ryan says two cases of Marburg fever have been confirmed in the Angolan capital, Luanda and alert cases have been reported in four other provinces. So far, six provinces have been affected by the virus.

Marburg Haemorrhagic fever is a severe and highly fatal disease caused by a virus from the same family as the deadly Ebola virus. There is no known cure. Transmission requires extremely close contact with a patient. Infection results from contact with blood or other body fluid. Death occurs between eight and nine days after the onset of symptoms.

Although two cases of the disease have been confirmed in Luanda, Dr. Ryan says there is no active epidemic there.

"However, Luanda is a densely populated city with movement and exchange of people between all areas of Angola,” he added. “Therefore, it is crucially important that the surveillance systems, isolation units, etc. have to be fully established in Luanda, both to maintain the confidence in travel to Angola, in the economy and also to protect that population. And, that is ongoing and many agencies are involved in that."

Dr. Ryan says more than 60 international health experts are working with hundreds of local health care workers to bring this epidemic under control. He says surveillance systems are being intensified. Teams of people are tracing those who may have been in contact with someone infected with the disease. Sick people are being put into isolation wards.

He says protective gear to prevent infection has been sent to Angola. In addition, he says information and educational campaigns are picking up steam. He says it is crucial that local people understand they must not touch sick or dead bodies in order to prevent illness and to break the chain of transmission.