West Africa placed on high alert as first case of deadly Ebola-like Marburg virus with 88% fatality rate detected

Authorities are racing to trace anyone who may have been in contact with Marburg, a haemorrhagic virus with a fatality rate as high as 88pc

A highly infectious haemorrhagic virus similar to Ebola has been detected for the first time in West Africa, triggering a rush to identify potential contacts and squash the outbreak before it spreads.

Marburg virus was detected in a male patient in Guinea who has since died, according to the World Health Organization. The pathogen is from the same family of viruses as Ebola, but it has no known vaccines or treatments and a fatality rate as high as 88 per cent. 

The case was detected in the same region that the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak began in 2013, during which some 11,000 people died
The case was detected in the same region that the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak began in 2013, during which some 11,000 people died CREDIT: Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The individual sought treatment in the Gueckedou province, a region in southeast Guinea close to both Sierra Leone and Liberia, raising some concerns that it could jump across the borders. 

“The potential for the Marburg virus to spread far and wide means we need to stop it in its tracks,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, adding that Guinea’s health workers had instigated “quick investigative action”.

“We are working with the health authorities to implement a swift response that builds on Guinea’s past experience and expertise in managing Ebola, which is transmitted in a similar way,” she said.

According to a WHO alert, the man first developed symptoms on July 25, before he attended a small health clinic near his village in a remote forested area on August 1. He died the following day. As of Saturday, all four people identified as high-risk close contacts were asymptomatic. 

Marburg virus was first identified in 1967 during two epidemics that occurred concurrently in Marburg and Frankfurt in Germany, and in Belgrade, Serbia. The outbreak was linked to laboratory work using African green monkeys imported from Uganda. 

In the decades since, sporadic epidemics have been identified in countries including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya. The largest outbreak to date was in Angola in 2005, when 374 caught the virus and 329 died – a fatality rate of 88 per cent.

Marburg is transmitted to people via fruit bats, and spreads between humans through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people. In 2018, scientists in Sierra Leone found live bats infected with the virus, but no cases were confirmed in humans. 

Early symptoms include a high fever, severe headache and malaise, and many patients develop a severe haemorrhagic fever within a week. 

The latest outbreak in Guinea comes less than two months after an Ebola outbreak which killed 12 people was declared over. That outbreak was also in Gueckedou province, where the devastating West Africa epidemic from 2014-2016 also began

The WHO said efforts are underway to trace anyone who may have been in contact with the Marburg victim, with health authorities launching communication campaigns and cross-border surveillance systems enhanced. 

“[The] response requires a concerted effort to prevent transmission and protect communities,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “WHO colleagues have been in the field with local partners since first alerts emerged and will continue to provide all needed support.”

According to Sky News, Symptoms include a high fever and muscle pain, but some patients later suffer bleeding from their eyes and ears. After the male patient sought treatment and died in Gueckedou, the case was confirmed by a laboratory in Guinea and again by the Institut Pasteur in nearby Senegal. Contact tracing is under way, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN agency added that an initial team of 10 WHO experts were on the ground in Gueckedou, and the positive case has been confirmed both by Guinean labs and the Institut Pasteur in Senegal. 

There are currently no known vaccines or antivirals for Marburg, though several are in development. But supportive care, including rehydration and the treatment of specific symptoms, helps improve survival chances.

Alongside pathogens including Ebola, Zika Lassa fever and ‘Disease X’ – an as yet unidentified disease with pandemic potential – Marburg is listed by the WHO as a top 10 priority diseases,  meaning it is considered to “pose the greatest public health risk”.