What is the Marburg virus and how can it be avoided?

Microscope image of Marburg virus

Two people in Ghana have died from the Marburg virus – and 98 been quarantined – raising fears of a mass outbreak of this highly infectious disease, which causes fever, muscle pains, diarrhoea, vomiting and, in many cases, death through extreme blood loss.

What is the Marburg virus?

A cousin of the equally deadly Ebola virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Marburg virus, was first identified after 31 people were infected and seven died in simultaneous outbreaks in 1967 in:

  • Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany
  • Belgrade, Serbia
An African green monkey on the jungle floor
Image caption,The Marburg virus was first traced to the African green monkey

The outbreak was traced to African green monkeys imported from Uganda.

But the virus has been linked to other animals since then.

And among humans, it is spread mostly by people who have spent long periods in caves and mines populated by bats.

This is Ghana’s first outbreak – but a number of African countries have had them, including:

  • the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Kenya
  • South Africa
  • Uganda
  • Zimbabwe

A 2005 outbreak in Angola killed more than 300 people.

But in Europe, only one person has died in the past 40 years – and one in the US, after returning from expeditions to caves in Uganda.


Major outbreaks:

  • 2017, Uganda: three cases, three died
  • 2012, Uganda: 15 cases, four died
  • 2005, Angola: 374 cases, 329 died
  • 1998-2000, DR Congo: 154 cases, 128 died
  • 1967, Germany: 29 cases, seven died

Source: WHO


What illness does it cause?

The virus begins abruptly with:

  • a fever
  • severe headache
  • muscle pains

This is often followed, three days later, by:

  • watery diarrhoea
  • stomach pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting

The WHO says: “The appearance of patients at this phase has been described as showing ‘ghost-like’ drawn features, deep-set eyes, expressionless faces and extreme lethargy.”

Many people go on to bleed from various parts of the body and die eight to nine days after first falling ill, because of extreme loss of blood and shock.

On average, the virus kills half those infected, the WHO says, but the most harmful strains have killed up to 88%.

Egyptian rousette fruit bat being held in a gloved hand
Image caption,The Egyptian rousette fruit bat is a main carrier of the virus

How is it spread?

The Egyptian rousette fruit bat often harbours the virus.

African green monkeys and pigs can also carry it.

Among humans, it spreads through bodily fluids and bedding contaminated with them.

And even if people recover, their blood or semen, for example, can infect others for many months afterwards.

How can it be treated?

There is no specific vaccine or treatments for the virus.

But a range of blood products, drug and immune therapies are being developed, the WHO says.

And doctors may be able to alleviate the symptoms by giving hospital patients plenty of fluids and replacing lost blood.

How can it be contained?

People in Africa should avoid eating or handling bushmeat, Gavi, an international organisation promoting vaccine access, says.

People should also avoid contact with pigs in areas with an outbreak, the WHO says.

Men who have had the virus should use condoms for a year after the onset of symptoms or until their semen twice tests negative.

And those burying people who have died from the virus should avoid touching the body.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s