August 17, 2007 / 5:20 PM / 12 years ago

Marburg outbreak in Uganda contained: WHO expert

GENEVA (Reuters) - Uganda has contained an outbreak of Marburg disease among gold miners, but contacts of the two known cases must now make sure they don’t spread the deadly virus through sex, the World Health Organisation said on Friday.

WHO expert Pierre Formenty said investigators had collected hundreds of bats from the mine, which they suspect may be a possible reservoir of the disease.

A miner died on July 14 and another was confirmed this week as having survived the rare viral hemorrhagic disease, spread through blood or other body fluids including semen. Closely related to the Ebola virus, it kills most of its victims.

“This outbreak is contained. But we need to follow up the survivors and (contacts) need to have safe sex in the next three months at least,” Formenty told reporters by telephone. “Survivors could eject virus in semen.”

He was speaking from a laboratory near Kitaka mine in the western Kamwenge district, some 250 km (155 miles) from the capital Kampala.

A team of eight international experts has gathered there to research how the virus is transmitted to humans and to try to pin down its elusive “natural reservoir”.

Active surveillance of the miners and nearby population would continue to the end of August, Formenty said.

“We should stay vigilant, other outbreaks will come,” he added, noting that there had been multiple outbreaks of both Marburg and Ebola in Africa over the past decade.

A major outbreak of Marburg occurred among gold miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2000, causing 128 deaths among 154 cases. An outbreak in Angola in 2004-05 killed 150 people among 163 cases, according to the WHO.

There is no vaccine or specific treatment for the disease, which causes a severe headache and fever followed by rapid debilitation. Death can follow within eight to nine days.

An outbreak is contained when two incubation periods, or 21 days, have passed without any contacts developing symptoms.

Experts from the WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases have been examining some 300 fruit and insect-eating bats trapped when leaving the mine.

But Robert Swanepoel, a South African expert who has also worked on previous outbreaks in Congo and Angola, said: “Finding the virus doesn’t prove that a species is in fact the key to the riddle of where the virus remains or is perpetuated.

“The tragedy of this disease ... is an outbreak goes by very quickly. You are looking for something that is no longer there.”

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