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Covid-like fatal Marburg disease that jumps from bats to humans detected in West Africa, WHO steps in

West Africa’s first-ever case of Marburg virus disease confirmed in Guinea (Pic: Courtesy Twitter/@MoetiTshidi)

Guinea has confirmed the first case in West Africa of the Marburg disease caused by a deadly virus related to Ebola, which like Covid-19 jumps species from animal hosts to humans, the WHO has announced.

The virus, which is carried by bats and has a fatality rate of up to 88 percent, was found in samples taken from a patient who died on August 2 in southern Gueckedou prefecture, the WHO said.

“The potential for the Marburg virus to spread far and wide means we need to stop it in its tracks,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said.

“We are working with the health authorities to implement a swift response that builds on Guinea’s past experience and expertise in managing Ebola, which is transmitted in a similar way,” Moeti said.

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The discovery comes just two months after the WHO declared an end to Guinea's second outbreak of Ebola in which 12 people died.

In Geneva, the WHO said it considered the threat from Marburg “high at the national and regional level, but low globally.”

The Guinean government confirmed the Marburg case in a statement.

Marburg virus is usually associated with exposure to caves or mines housing colonies of Rousettus bats. Once caught by a human, it is spread through contact with bodily fluids of infected people, or with contaminated surfaces and materials, according to the WHO.

Marburg case fatality rates have varied from 24% to 88% in past outbreaks, depending on virus strain and case management, WHO said, adding that transmission occurred through contact with infected body fluids and tissue.

The case was detected in a village in a forested region close to the borders of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

WHO said the man's symptoms first surfaced on July 25. After being initially treated at a local clinic and tested for malaria, the patient died "in the community." Post-mortem samples then tested negative for Ebola, but positive for Marburg.

Three family members of the deceased and a healthcare worker have been identified as high-risk close contacts and are being monitored, while investigations are under way to identify the source of the infection and any other possible contacts, the WHO said.

Ten WHO experts, including epidemiologists and socio-anthropologists, are already in the field to support national health authorities as part of the emergency response.

Cross-border surveillance has also been stepped up so that possible cases can be quickly detected, it said.

There have been 12 major Marburg outbreaks since 1967, mostly in South Africa, Angola, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But this is the first time the virus has been detected in West Africa.

The disease begins suddenly with symptoms that include headache, vomiting blood, muscle pains and bleeding through various orifices.

Fatality rates have ranged from 24 percent to 88 percent in previous outbreaks, depending on the virus strain and case management, according to the WHO.

Although there are no approved vaccines or antiviral treatments, oral or intravenous rehydration and treatment of specific symptoms helps patients to recover.