A deadly cousin of the Ebola virus has made its way to a new part of the world. This week, World Health Organisation officials announced that the African nation of Ghana is now experiencing its first documented outbreak of Marburg. At least two people have contracted the disease so far, both of whom have died.
Marburg is caused by the Marburg virus, named after the German town where one of the first documented outbreaks of the virus occurred in 1967 — an outbreak that was sparked when lab workers were exposed to infected monkeys imported from Africa. Its usual host is the African fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus).
Both Marburg and Ebola belong to the same filovirus family, and they cause very similar symptoms in humans. These symptoms initially include flu-like illness, followed by rash, vomiting, chest abdominal pain, and diarrhoea. The infection can then rapidly become life-threatening, causing internal bleeding, organ failure, and shock. Its mortality rate can range from 23% to over 90%.
Marburg has spilled over into humans with much less frequency than Ebola. The largest documented outbreak of Marburg occurred in Angola between 2004 and 2005 and left over 200 dead. Ebola’s largest outbreak, mainly in West Africa, sickened around 30,000 people and killed 11,000 from 2014 to 2016. Our greater familiarity with Ebola has allowed us to develop effective antivirals and a vaccine against it, while no such specific options exist for Marburg currently. This is the second time that Marburg has been documented in West Africa in as many years, following a single case reported from Guinea in September 2021.
The two cases in Ghana were unrelated to one another, but both victims lived in the southern region of Ashanti. They had also sought care at the same hospital within days of each other in late June. Samples from each patient were tested by two labs, one of which is affiliated with the WHO, and both confirmed the presence of Marburg.
“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,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in a statement.
More than 90 contacts of the patients have been identified by authorities, including health care workers, and are now being monitored.
“WHO is on the ground supporting health authorities and now that the outbreak is declared, we are marshalling more resources for the response,” said Moeti.