Family and neighbours watch in terror as Marburg virus kills

AS epidemiologist Sylvia Briand boots up to take samples from a prospective victim of the deadly Marburg virus in a cramped Angolan slum, family and neighbours stand by in fear, grief and fascination.

Identifying cases of the Ebola-like haemorrhagic fever is seen as key to controlling an outbreak that has killed over 230 people in this southern African country and which the UN World Health Organisation says is not yet contained.

“We have seen some cases where it has killed 11 people in one family,” Ms Briand said.

The government has said the epidemic is under control, with cases limited largely to the northern province of Uige or occurring among travellers returning from the region.

But Angola and its southern African neighbours remain on alert, fearing the scenes in Uige could be repeated elsewhere.

South African officials on Wednesday tested a sick passenger who arrived in Johannesburg on a plane from Angola’s capital Luanda, although there was no immediate indication that the illness was Marburg.

In Uige, a tower of black smoke rises into the air above the town - where lack of power and water and heavily-potholed streets show the legacy of Angola’s 27-year civil war - as health workers in protective gear burn contaminated waste.

Most Marburg cases are reported only after death, by which time family and other carers have often also contracted the virus through body fluids including saliva, blood and sweat.

Marburg infection begins with severe headaches, muscle pain and fever followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, and internal bleeding. Death occurs most often between eight and nine days after symptoms start, usually preceded by severe blood loss and shock. If Ms Briand’s tests on the swabs taken from the 20-year-old woman, who died suddenly and whose body lies visible inside the one-room corrugated iron roofed hut, come back positive, her family and others in the crowd of over 50 gathered around the home may already have the disease.

“Look how poor we are,” said a retired pharmacist living near the suspected case, which was visited by the WHO team on Tuesday. “How can we put in hygiene measures which they are telling us to?”

The joint WHO-government database of people who have been in contact with the disease is growing. Some 90% of infected cases have died, although in a province of half a million most families remain untouched by the disease.

At one stage, the WHO suspended operations after its vehicles were stoned by scared residents. Sporadic attacks continue, and health workers say they are very aware of how fast crowds around victims’ homes can turn ugly.

“There were rumours the white people had brought the disease,” said Ms Briand. Doctors say if the virus was airborne like some other diseases such as flu, the death toll would be much higher.

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