The extremely rare and deadly Marburg virus has been detected for the first time in the African nation of Guinea, according to health officials who warn that it could spread “far and wide.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) immediately issued a warning about the disease, saying that swift action is necessary to prevent it from exploding like Ebola, which is part of the same family of viruses.
“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, in a statement.
“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.”
Health officials in Guinea say they have identified four high-risk contacts with the infected patient. Another 146 people at risk were also identified, Dr. Krutika Kuppalli told BBC News.
Like Ebola, Marburg is a highly infectious and potentially fatal disease that initially spreads to humans through fruit bats. Once infected, humans can spread the virus to other people through bodily fluids and via contaminated surfaces.
Symptoms of the virus include headache, fever, muscle pains, bleeding and vomiting blood, the WHO says. The disease is severe, untreatable and ultimately kills approximately half of the people it infects. Doctors say the best way to deal with it is to treat the symptoms and give patients lots of water.
The disease remains very rare and hard to recognize, as the symptoms resemble malaria, typhoid and other hemorrhagic fevers.
The virus was first identified in 1967, when simultaneous outbreaks occurred in Belgrade, Serbia and the German cities of Frankfurt and Marburg. Those outbreaks were linked to lab monkeys that had been imported from Uganda.
Since then, health officials have recorded handfuls of cases and a few outbreaks in Uganda, Kenya, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo over the years.
The worst outbreak occurred in 2005, when 374 people were infected in Angola. Of those 374 infected, 329 people died.
The most recent cases, before the one in Guinea, were detected in Uganda in 2017. The virus infected and killed three people before it was contained.