|Italian doctor Maria Bonino with a young patient at the hospital of Uige province in Angola|
The World Health Organization reported 15 deaths over the past week from the Marburg virus, down from an average of 25-35 deaths in previous weeks.
Angolan health officials said Friday that no new cases of the disease have been reported outside Uige province, the epicenter of the outbreak, which was detected 15 weeks ago.
These are encouraging signs, says Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO, but health officials must remain vigilant.
"The chain of transmission is being broken as we speak," Dr. Ryan said. "However, this is the most critical time now in the response. Now, that we are beginning to get things under control, continuing and intensifying the efforts is what we need to do now, and not to relax. The guys on the ground there know what they are doing. I think, we need to be even more intense over the coming days."
So far, the disease, which triggers bleeding, fever, and in some cases causes the victims skin to peel off, has led to 244 deaths during the current outbreak, all of them in Angola. The Marburg virus, which is in the same disease family as Ebola, is spread through touch and contact with bodily fluids, a fact that makes health care workers and those preparing bodies for burial particularly vulnerable.
Many inhabitants of affected areas were initially hostile to the disease control teams that arrived soon after the onset of the outbreak. Health officials say this may have contributed to the spread of the virus, as families hid cases of Marburg, and many deaths went unreported.
The head of the WHO's coordination team in Uige, Dr. Pierre Formenty, who spoke to reporters during a telephone news conference Saturday, said health workers fighting the outbreak had to take into account the fears of local communities.
"It is a general strategy that we have developed here with the provincial authorities to take care of the dignity of the people for the funeral and the burial, but, also, to take care, and to respect, [the] dignity of the sick patient," Dr. Formenty said.
Dr. Formenty says, that in many ways, the new strategy has helped slow the spread of the virus.
He says he is not yet sure the recent drop in the number of Marburg-related deaths means the outbreak is nearing its end, but he says data on victims is probably more accurate than before.
"If we are talking about trends, I would say, it is just a gut feeling that, maybe, things are going to be better, in the sense that people are reporting more and more, and more systematically, their deaths," he said. "So, we are much better in terms of our surveillance in the community."
There is no cure for the Marburg virus. Though some people survive the disease, no one yet knows why. About 75 percent of those infected in the Angola outbreak have been children under the age of five.