Tanzania’s Ministry of Health has confirmed five people died in a first-ever Marburg virus outbreak near the border with Uganda. The virus causes a severe hemorrhagic fever and is deadlier than the related Ebola virus, which was first suspected in the deaths. Tanzanian health officials say they are working to contain the Marburg outbreak.
Tanzania’s health minister, Ummy Mwalimu, said the mysterious and deadly outbreak in its northwest Kagera region was caused by the Marburg virus.
Mwalimu announced at a Tuesday evening press briefing the government was intensifying efforts to contain the virus, including with contact tracing.
She said among the five people who died from the virus last week were four from the same family. The additional death was a health worker.
Mwalimu said the government has successfully managed to control the rate of new infections of the disease and the disease remains confined to the same area.
Tanzania has never before recorded a case of Marburg, a virus that the World Health Organization says has a fatality rate as high as 88%.
The deaths last week were initially suspected to be Ebola, a virus related to Marburg that the WHO says has an average fatality rate of 50% but is slightly more infectious.
Marburg and Ebola have similar symptoms, such as high fever, severe headaches, and bleeding.
Last week’s outbreak occurred near the border with Uganda, which recovered from a months-long Ebola outbreak in January that caused 77 deaths.
WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said Tuesday officials were working with Tanzania to halt the Marburg virus’s spread.
WHO Tanzania representative Zabulon Yoti told the Tuesday briefing the public should remain calm as it deals with the disease.
“This is not the first time Marburg has occurred in Africa. It has happened several times in our neighboring country, Uganda, and they have typically managed to contain it through strong community involvement,” said Yoti. “I am calling upon community members to join hands with the government to ensure that contacts are identified and those who require care receive it promptly.”
The WHO says Marburg has also been found in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and South Africa and is spread by bats to people, who then spread it through body fluids.
It was first recognized as a disease after simultaneous laboratory-related outbreaks in 1967 in the cities of Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, and in Belgrade.
A WHO report last year said Tanzania is at high risk for infectious disease outbreaks.
Peter Bujari, who heads Health Promotion Tanzania, an activist group that raises awareness on health issues and disease control, said Marburg kills quickly and Tanzania’s health facilities often suffer from a shortage of medicine and medical supplies. Bujari said the government must aid healthcare workers who are on the front line in treating patients and receiving them, so they are not infected.
Tanzania’s Ministry of Health is providing leaflets about the Marburg virus, including how to protect oneself, and phone numbers for reporting any suspected cases.