Marburg hemorrhagic fever, a serious and often fatal disease that produces sudden bleeding and high fever, is caused by a virus that is related to the one that causes Ebola hemorrhagic fever. The World Health Organization says the virus poses a threat to global public health and in the meantime scientists think bats could be spreading the virus.

Uganda is the latest African country to be hit by outbreaks of the Marburg virus. Results of laboratory tests on blood samples from the Ugandan capital Kampala and Kamwenge, in the west of the country, taken from a mine worker who died from the disease in July and one of his close contacts during his illness, have come back positive for the Marburg virus.

Other people who came into contact with the miner are being kept under observation but are not thought to be infected.

The tests were carried out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, USA.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) an international team of experts from the WHO, CDC, Médecins sans Frontières , Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET) and local non governmental organizations (NGOs) are helping the Ugandan Health Ministry to increase surveillance, trace contact, control infection, manage logistics and other procedures necessary to contain the oubreak successfully.

US and Ugandan scientists are also carrying out ecological studies of the mines and surrounding area to trace the hosts and methods by which the virus is transmitted in the natural environment.

One possibility is bats. About 5 million bats live near the mine where the infected miner worked. Scientists from the CDC, the WHO and National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa have also been searching lead and gold mines in the area.

Meanwhile in the Democratic Republic of Congo (next to Uganda), and its neighbour, Gabon, US and Gabonese scientists have captured over 1,000 bats in caves and found that some of them were infected with the Marburg virus. The infected bats are from one species of fruit bat that is common across sub-Saharan Africa and is called Rousettus aegypticus.

According to the WHO, Marburg and Ebola are the "most virulent pathogens known to infect humans". Both are rare, but when outbreaks occur the fatality rate is very high, 80 and 90 per cent in some cases.

An outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Angola in 2004, killed around 300 people. The epicentre of the outbreak was Uige Province and the source was never found.

Finding the infected fruit bats is a big step toward understanding how the virus behaves in the wild.

Early symptoms of Marburg hemorrhagic fever include stomach ache, diarrhea and vomiting, followed by loss of blood. An infected human can pass it to another through blood or bodily fluids. At present there is no antidote and infected people have to be kept in strict isolation to contain the outbreak.

Click here for more details of how the scientists looked for and tested the bats in Uganda (Environment News Service).

Click here for Questions and Answers About Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever (CDC).

Click here for World Health Organization website about Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever.

: Catharine Paddock

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