Ghana declares 1st ever outbreak of Ebola-like Marburg virus disease

Marburg is almost as deadly as Ebola, but there are no treatments or vaccines.

July 18, 2022, 8:27 AM

LONDON -- Ghana on Sunday declared its first ever outbreak of the Ebola-like Marburg virus disease.

Blood samples taken from two patients in the southern Ashanti region were sent for testing to the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana's capital, Accra, with preliminary results suggesting earlier this month that their illness was due to Marburg. With the support of the World Health Organization, the samples were then sent for further testing to the Institut Pasteur in Senegal's capital, Dakar, which ultimately corroborated the results from Accra, the Ghana Health Service said in a press release Sunday.

Marburg is a rare but severe viral hemorrhagic fever, almost as deadly as the more well-known Ebola virus disease. Case fatality rates for Marburg have varied from 24% to 88% in previous outbreaks, while Ebola case fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90%. Unlike with Ebola, there are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for Marburg, according to the WHO.

"Health authorities have responded swiftly, getting a head start preparing for a possible outbreak. This is good because without immediate and decisive action, Marburg can easily get out of hand," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, said in a statement Sunday. "WHO is on the ground supporting health authorities and now that the outbreak is declared, we are marshalling more resources for the response."

Ghana's first case was a 26-year-old man who was hospitalized on June 26 and died the next day, officials said. The second case was a 51-year-old man who sought treatment at the same hospital on June 28 and died later that day. Both patients, who were unrelated, experienced similar symptoms, including diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting, the WHO said in a press release Sunday.

In this April 20, 2005 file photo a health worker in protective clothing carries waste for disposal outside the isolation ward where victims of the deadly Marburg virus are treated in the northern Angolan town of Uige.
Mike Hutchings/Reuters, FILE

So far, 98 contacts have been identified in Ashanti as well as the northwestern Savannah region. They are currently under quarantine and being monitored by health authorities. No new cases have been detected, according to the Ghana Health Service.

The Marburg virus is transmitted to humans from fruit bats and spreads person-to-person through direct contact with the bodily fluids of the infected individuals, surfaces and materials. Illness begins abruptly, with high fever, severe headache and malaise. Many patients develop severe haemorrhagic signs within seven days, according to the WHO.

To reduce the risk of transmission, the Ghana Health Service advised people to avoid exposure to mines or caves inhabited by fruit bat colonies, to cook all animal products thoroughly before consumption and to avoid direct contact with anyone showing symptoms.

It is only the second time the highly infectious, zoonotic disease has been detected in West Africa. Guinea confirmed a single case in an outbreak that was declared over in September 2021, five weeks after the initial case was detected. The largest, most fatal Marburg outbreak on record infected and killed more than 200 people in Angola between 2004 and 2005, according to the WHO. The global health arm of the United Nations noted that it has reached out to Ghana's high-risk neighbors, who it said are now "on alert."

West African nations know all too well what a deadly virus like Ebola can do to a region. The biggest and deadliest Ebola outbreak on record infected more than 28,000 people and killed over 11,000 across multiple countries -- mainly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- between 2013 and 2016, according to the WHO.

Although no treatment or vaccine exists for Marburg, supportive care -- rehydration with oral or intravenous fluids -- and treatment of specific symptoms both improve a patient's chance of survival. A range of potential treatments, including blood products, immune therapies and drug therapies, as well as candidate vaccines with phase 1 data are under evaluation, the WHO said.

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