Tanzania Identifies Mystery Virus as Marburg
Tanzania’s Health Minister, Ummy Mwalimu, inspects a health facility for its preparedness to handle a disease outbreak in Kagera

BUKOBA, Tanzania – Scientists have identified the mystery disease that has killed five people in the last week in Tanzania’s north-western Kagera region as the highly contagious Marburg virus, which is a filovirus like Ebola.

Health Minister Ummy Mwalimu announced this on Tuesday but said that her government has managed to control the spread of the disease. Three patients are receiving treatment in hospital and 161 contacts are being traced by the authorities, she added.

Health officials said two additional cases were identified in the coastal town of Bukoba, where victims reportedly displayed symptoms like vomiting, high fever and kidney failure.

A team of virologists and epidemiologists was rushed to the affected villages to contain and track the outbreak. Tanzania Chief Medical Officer Tumaini Nagu said multiple isolation units to help monitor and isolate people displaying symptoms are now operational.

“The government is closely monitoring the situation and taking appropriate measures to contain the disease,” Nagu told Health Policy Watch.

Tanzania Chief Medical Officer Tumaini Nagu

Multiple samples from the bodies of victims were analysed by specialists in a government laboratory in the capital Dar es Salaam.

Two people known to be infected are being treated in a local isolation ward and responding well to medication, Nagu said. She urged the public to take additional safety precautions and remain hyper-vigilant around people showing signs of illness.

The health ministry has advised that anyone who shows signs of nausea, weakness, bleeding, diarrhoea, or fever should report to the nearest health centre.

The Tanzanian government has launched a public awareness campaign across the Kagera region where the virus was identified in a bid to mobilize its residents to help contain the outbreak.

“Public education is critical,” Nagu said. “Especially in rural areas where people are usually indifferent to the changing situation during disease outbreaks.”

A reminder of COVID-19 

Nestled between the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania’s Kagera region has repeatedly experienced outbreaks of unknown diseases.

Its proximity to neighbouring countries has raised suspicion that diseases may have spilt over from neighbours like Uganda, which battled an Ebola outbreak that killed 55 people and infected 142 more in under four months before it was contained in January this year.

At present, Equatorial Guinea is contending with a Marburg outbreak, but a lack of laboratory capacity has hampered its efforts to identify and contain the outbreak.

Traders in Muruku ward in Kagera sell their fruit in the local market.

Issessenda Kaniki, a regional medical officer and virologist, told Health Policy Watch that medical experts deployed in Kagera are exploring every possible avenue to identify and defeat the outbreak.

“Strict personal hygiene rules were observed when handling the bodies to avoid direct contact with infected blood of bodily fluids,” Kaniki said, noting that the government worked with the bereaved families of the victims to safely dispose of the bodies, which were handled by trained officials in personal protective gear.

While the risk of contagion from corpses is rarely a significant factor, Kaniki said great caution was exercised by local authorities.

“A dead body may carry a significant amount of infectious virus for as long as seven days after someone dies,” she said.

Paskalia Mujwahuzi, a relative of one of the victims, said her 43-year-old brother suffered rapid and severe internal and external bleeding before experiencing the kidney complications that took his life.

“I was very frightened not knowing what to do,” she said. “We rushed him to the hospital but [as soon as we arrived] he was pronounced dead.”

Mujwahuzi told Health Policy Watch she noticed an abrupt change in his brother’s condition when he returned from rearing cattle. He suffered vomiting, searing chest pain, and swelling in his legs.

“He was perpetually vomiting and spitting blood,” she said.

Despite her best efforts, nothing she did could alleviate his symptoms and he died shortly afterwards.

Health workers being trained to tackle disease oubreaks

Zoonotic illnesses surging across Africa 

The incidence of new infectious diseases in humans has surged in recent decades. More than 30 new infections – 60% of which have spilt over from animals – have been detected in the past 30 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Africa has seen a 63% jump in zoonotic diseases in the past decade. The global Mpox outbreak that caused panic across the globe is endemic in parts of the continent and is just one example of the many challenges confronting health authorities.   

The increased frequency of diseases jumping from animals to humans is due in part to Africa’s rapid population growth. With the fastest-growing population in the world, the demand for food derived from animals like meat, poultry and eggs is rising sharply, heightening the risk of zoonotic infections.

Tanzania has been hit particularly hard by this wave of new illnesses. As the country’s population grows, encroachment on wildlife habitats has become increasingly common, experts said.

Cecilia Mville, a virologist at Tanzania’s Kibong’oto Infectious Disease Hospital, said the government needs to urgently enhance its surveillance systems, diagnostic laboratories and health workforce to keep up with emerging threats.

“We need a pool of skilled health workers specially trained to detect, prevent and respond to disease outbreaks,” Mville said.

While COVID-19 underscored the urgency of strengthening national disease surveillance efforts, experts like Mville said these often overlook the rural communities at the highest risk of being infected by zoonotic diseases due to their frequent contact with wild animals and limited access to health facilities.

As Tanzanian authorities race to keep up with the Marburg outbreak, Mville warned that new investments in health systems are required if the country hopes to avoid future crises.

“Delayed detection of infectious disease outbreaks and ineffective responses heighten the risk of pandemics.”

Image Credits: Muhidin Issa Michuzi.

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