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Why Marburg Virus Is an Increasing Threat in Africa

Electron micrograph of the Marburg virus

Electron micrograph of the Marburg virus

Source: BSIP/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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Marburg virus killed two men in Ghana in June, touching off the West African nation’s first confirmed outbreak of the highly virulent disease. From the same family as the Ebola virus, Marburg caused occasional outbreaks and sporadic cases mostly in Central and Southern Africa until Guinea, in West Africa, confirmed a single, lethal case in August 2021. The latest deaths show once again how a pathogen found in fruit bats can cross the species barrier to infect humans and risk touching off a deadly scourge.

It’s a member of the Filoviridae family of viruses which can cause severe hemorrhagic fever in people, killing up to 90% of those infected. Marburg virus disease was recognized in 1967, when outbreaks occurred simultaneously in laboratories in Marburg and Frankfurt, both in Germany, and in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Cases were traced to green monkeys imported from Uganda for research and polio vaccine production. Nine years later, a closely related virus was found to have sparked a deadly outbreak in a village near the Ebola River in Congo, giving that virus its name. Since then, many more viruses known to cause similar diseases in humans have been discovered around the world, with globalization, international travel, and climate change aiding their spread.