for National Geographic News
An outbreak of Marburg, an Ebola-like virus, had killed at least 150 people in Angola as of yesterday, making it the deadliest outbreak of the rare Marburg disease ever recorded.
Scientists are puzzled by the epidemic's remarkably high fatality rate. So far, the Angolan Ministry of Health has reported 163 cases of the hemorrhagic fever, putting the fatality rate around 90 percent. In previous outbreaks, the disease has had a fatality rate as low as 25 percent.
This time, at least 75 percent of the victims have been children under the age of five.
"This is something we haven't seen in previous Marburg outbreaks," said David Daigle, a spokesperson for the infectious disease program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
There is no known cure for the virus, which spreads on contact with body fluids such as blood, urine, excrement, vomit, and saliva. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea, and vomiting, which give way to bleeding.
Efforts at containing the Angolan epidemic have been complicated by the country's poor health care system. Officials worry that the epidemic will spread from its epicenter in the remote, northern Uige province to more densely populated areas.
So far, two deaths have been confirmed in Luanda, the Angolan capital, according to Dick Thompson, the spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Marburg virus was named after the German town where it was first identified in 1967, when monkeys imported from Uganda infected laboratory workers.
Before the current epidemic in Angola, the worst Marburg outbreak occurred between 1998 and 2000 in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where it killed 123 people. That was also the last known outbreak until the latest flare-up.
Marburg is a relative of Ebola (both viruses are in the Filovirus family), and Marburg is believed to primarily inhabit countries in East and Central Africa. The current outbreak marks the first time the virus has struck Angola, which is in southwestern Africa.
There are at least four different strains of Ebola with different degrees of lethality, ranging from 50 to 90 percent. Although no separate strains of Marburg have been identified, experts speculate that a particularly virulent strain of the virus could be behind the Angolan outbreak.
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