Health Officials Respond to Ebola-Like Marburg Virus

At the Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, where patients are treated for Ebola, health workers wear protective equipment on September 30, 2014. Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via Reuters

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed Friday that a health care worker who died in Uganda at the end of September was infected with the Marburg virus, which is "clinically similar" to Ebola.

Officials in Uganda attempted to reassure people this week that the Marburg virus would not spread like the current outbreak of Ebola, which has killed more than 4,000 in West Africa, according to the WHO.

"The Government reassures the general public that the situation is under control as everything is being done to control the spread of this highly infectious disease," Ugandan medical authorities wrote on the government's Facebook page Tuesday.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) announced Thursday that it is putting an emergency team in place and, with Uganda's Ministry of Health, is "strengthening its capacity to respond to a potential epidemic."

The last Marburg outbreak in Uganda occurred in 2012, when there were 20 cases, nine of which were fatal. The virus causes Marburg hemorrhagic fever, a disease with a mortality rate ranging from 24 to 88 percent, according to the WHO. The disease was identified in 1967 after outbreaks in Germany and Serbia that occurred after lab work using African green monkeys from Uganda.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at press briefing on Tuesday that the single case of Marburg shows "progress" in the ability of affected countries to contain viral outbreaks.

"Now, Marburg is a lot like Ebola, except it didn't have a movie made about it," Frieden said. "If we stop the outbreak [of Ebola] in rural DRC and we prevent the outbreak of Marburg in Uganda, that may not be headlines, but it tells us that there is progress and gives us confidence we will be able to control Ebola in West Africa."

Frieden was referring to an Ebola outbreak in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that occurred in late August and is not linked to the virus raging across West Africa, the WHO reports.

In the Marburg case in Uganda, the 30-year-old male health care worker fell ill on September 11 while working at the Mengo Hospital in Kampala, the country's capital, the WHO said. The patient, a radiographer whose symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headache—similar to those exhibited by Ebola patients—died on September 28. The Ugandan Ministry of Health confirmed that the patient was infected with the Marburg virus and alerted the WHO on October 5.

"WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are supporting the national Ugandan authorities in the investigation and response operations," the WHO said in its statement Friday.

Ninety-nine people who may have come into contact with the victim were quarantined in four locations across Uganda, including 60 health care workers, CNN reported Wednesday. The brother of the victim is one of at least 11 people who tested negative for Marburg. Three people are in isolation after showing signs of the disease, although they didn't come into contact with the victim, according to the State House of Uganda's Facebook page.

Marburg and Ebola are "clinically similar" diseases caused by different viruses that belong to the same family, according to the WHO. Ebola and Marburg are both rare "and have the capacity to cause dramatic outbreaks with high fatality rates," the WHO said. The organization advises against travel and trade restrictions against countries affected by both Marburg and Ebola to ensure medical staff and supplies can reach those who need them.

"Does this augur another terrifying outbreak like the one that's killed more than 3,400 in western Africa?" asks Quartz's Gwynn Guilford. "Probably not."

One of the reasons Ebola has been so devastating is that it's the first time the virus has hit West Africa, Guilford says. Governments in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been less prepared than Uganda, where "Marburg and Ebola crop up periodically," she writes.