What you need to know about the Marburg virus

BioTechniques News
Beatrice Bowlby

The Marburg virus has sparked concerns about the potential for yet another mass outbreak as two people have died in Ghana, with nearly a hundred people in quarantine. But what is this virus?

Marburg virus disease (MVD) is a hemorrhagic disease that is often fatal in humans. It is part of the same viral family as Ebola virus, which was responsible for the deaths of 11,323 people between 2013–2016. Following the first detection of Marburg virus in simultaneous outbreaks in Germany and Serbia in 1967, researchers began to study the virus’ epidemiology [1]. Over the last few days, it has been confirmed that Ghana has had its first outbreak of MVD, raising concerns about the potential for a mass outbreak [2].

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According to the World Health Organization, the 1967 outbreak was linked to African green monkeys imported from Uganda for lab work and since then, there have been two major outbreaks and two instances of sporadic cases. Humans contract MVD from Rousettus bats and then spread the disease to others via direct contact with or secondary contact (i.e. via contaminated surfaces or materials) with an infected persons’ fluids.

The average incubation period is 8 days. The symptoms of MVD include headache, high fever and achiness. The illness is also associated with gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. In most fatal cases, hemorrhaging occurs [2]. In these fatal cases, people die 8–9 days after first displaying symptoms. The fatality rate of MVD is high, with an average of 50% of those infected dying from the virus; some strains have been linked to an 88% fatality rate.

Diagnosing MVD requires tests, such as polymerase chain reaction assay, ELISA and virus isolation by cell culture. However, due to the highly contagious nature of the virus, these samples must be contained and those analyzing them must be protected. Although there are ways to confirm diagnosis of MVD, there are currently no vaccines for treatment. Survival is improved, however, when specific symptoms are treated and rehydration measures are taken. Current research is exploring whether monoclonal antibodies and antivirals developed to treat Ebola virus disease could also be used as MVD treatments.

Preventing infection relies on strict disease control protocols, such as restricting contact with infected individuals, disposing of lab samples and diagnostic tests carefully and burying the bodies of infected individuals safely. Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the recent cases of MVD have sparked concern due to the severity and contagiousness of the disease, which lacks an available vaccine. The situation is being monitored and preventative measures are being taken to isolate these cases of MVD.

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