A deadly cousin of Ebola, Marburg can kill nine out of ten people it infects, and international travel has taken it from Africa to Europe twice in the past 40 years. Will increasing globalisation make this virus more likely to erupt around the world?
In August 1967, a cluster of patients in Marburg and Frankfurt, in Germany, and in Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia), began showing symptoms of an infectious disease – a high fever, chills, muscle ache, and vomiting. The patients worsened over the next few days, until they began bleeding from every orifice in their body, including needle puncture wounds. In total 31 people died.
Three months after this outbreak, virologists in Marburg had discovered the first filovirus, a cousin of the equally-deadly Ebola virus. The virus had been carried by infected African green monkeys from Uganda.
Avoiding handling or eating bush meat is also critical to avoid any potential infection that could spread from animals.
After this first sighting, the virus was then mostly seen in African countries, in bat-infested caves or mines. About 40 years later, however, the virus re-emerged in Europe through a traveler returning to the Netherlands from a trip to Uganda where she had been visiting caves.
The largest known outbreak of Marburg virus, in Angola in 2004, infected over 250 people and had a 90 percent fatality rate. Marburg virus can persist in the eyes and testes of people who have recovered, and in pregnant women it can persist in the placenta and amniotic fluid as well as breast milk. This can be extremely dangerous. In early 2021, there were reports that Ebola, closely related to Marburg, could lay dormant in people only to emerge many months after an epidemic had ended, triggering another outbreak.