When marburg fever recently broke out in Katumba sub-county, Kabale district and claimed lives, some residents blamed it on witchcraft. It took the intervention of health experts to explain that it was not witchcraft but a fatal disease that needed more than just spiritual healing.
By press time, over six people had died, after showing symptoms linked to the deadly virus, while about 158 patients are being monitored.
What is marburg fever?
According to the World Health Organisation, marburg haemorrhagic fever is a severe and highly fatal disease caused by a virus in the same family as that one that causes ebola.
Dr. Winyi Kaboyo, the assistant commissioner in charge of veterinary public health at the health ministry, says marburg fever is a severe zoonotic disease, which is transmitted from animals to human beings.
"Evidence shows that the virus resides in bats and monkeys. However, primates can be infected spontaneously from an unknown source," he explains.
Kaboyo says anybody, regardless of age, can contract the virus if they get into contact with it.
The marburg virus is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of an infected person.
Transmission of the marburg virus also occurs by handling ill or dead infected wild animals such as monkeys and bats.
People get the disease if they are bitten by infected bats or if they inhale air with a high concentration of the virus, Kaboyo says. For example, the outbreak that occurred in Kamwenge district in 2007 affected miners in Kitaka mines because they had to go through caves, which were inhibited by bats.
According to Dr. Pauline Byakika, the head of the Infectious Disease Unit at Mulago Hospital, other forms of transmission include exposure to primate tissues from infected apes.
She says once the virus has invaded the population, it spreads from person to person through getting in direct contact with blood and body secretions, for example, saliva, tears, breast milk, semen, vomitus, stool and urine of an infected person.
"The incubation period of the virus lasts up to 21 days. On average, people who have the marburg virus start displaying signs and symptoms within four to 10 days," explains Byakika.
According to Byakika, the fever starts with nonspecific symptoms and may be mistaken for other infections.
The major indicator of the disease is bleeding because the virus interferes with the clotting of blood. The patient presents with vomiting blood, bloody watery stool; bleeding in the nose, eyes, ears, gums, anus and under the skin - in what appears like a bruise. Other symptoms include high fever as well as joint and muscle pain.
Byakika says before the symptoms manifest, the patients are not infectious because they are not shading the virus in their fluids.
Kaboyo says there is no drug or vaccine for the fever. Patients only get supportive treatment for the symptoms. For example, they are given treatment to bring down the fever, or pain killers to soothe the pain and plenty of fluids and electrolytes (mineral salts) to replace the fluid lost, especially through vomiting.
Caretakers should wear protective gear like gloves, since body contact remains the major mode of infection.
Byakika advises that:
One avoids getting close to corpses and coffins of the dead, especially in the affected areas.
Health workers should always use protective gear to avoid infections.
Seek medical check-up when one suspects they might have been infected by the virus.