Toddler dies of Ebola-like disease

·3-min read
Marburg seen under a microscope - BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
Marburg seen under a microscope - BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

A 16-month-old child who contracted the highly infectious Ebola-like Marburg virus in Ghana has died, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed.

Three people have so far tested positive, in the country’s first Marburg outbreak. All are from the same family – the father died on June 26, followed by the child on July 20, three days after being admitted to hospital.

The mother of the child is currently in isolation and no longer exhibiting symptoms, Dr Francis Kasolo, WHO Representative in Ghana, told The Telegraph. She will have to undergo two rounds of testing before she can leave. The other children in the family have not tested positive.

Marburg is a haemorrhagic fever with a death rate of up to 88 per cent and no known treatments.

There are some concerns that the current outbreak, only the second in West Africa, could be spreading silently in the community, although the WHO insisted that “extensive community engagement and contact tracing” would have detected more cases if this was happening.

“But with these diseases, you always have to err on the side of caution,” Dr Kasolo said.

Prof Sophie Harman, who specialises in international politics and Ebola, said the outbreak raises “a few alarm bells” and said there is a “worrying lack of international bandwidth for another outbreak in the world right now”.

It is not yet clear how the family caught the virus, but Marburg is transmitted from fruit bats. It spreads among humans through direct contact with bodily fluids, surfaces and materials. Symptoms include diarrhoea, fever, nausea and vomiting.

Last week, Dr Soce Fall at the WHO said the second contact – the wife and mother – had attended a prayer camp shortly after her husband died, where the practice of laying of hands is used to try to heal people.

“The mother is now in isolation and being followed up,” Dr Kasolo said. “The lady had gone to bury her husband in the north, and after the burial, she was supposed to seek prayer. We were able to remove her from the prayer [centre] and move her to a treatment centre.”

He added that her close contacts are also being isolated.

Prof  Harman said it is important to be cautious about blaming a grieving mother for her actions.

She added that the biggest mistake is to “assume Marburg has not already spread”. “The default should be to assume it is spreading, to find out where, and to stop it,” said Prof Harman.

Prof David Heyman, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Telegraph, that the “potential is there” for a major Marburg epidemic, although the trajectory of the current outbreak is difficult to predict.

“All known contacts are put under surveillance for fever onset for three weeks – the same will happen in this instance,” he said. “There have only been one or two major Marburg outbreaks – the potential is there, [but] fortunately Ghana has an excellent health system.”

Marburg virus was first identified in 1967 during two epidemics that occurred concurrently in Marburg and Frankfurt in Germany, and in Belgrade, Serbia. The outbreak was linked to laboratory work using African green monkeys imported from Uganda.

In the decades since, sporadic epidemics have been identified in countries including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya. The largest outbreak to date was in Angola in 2005, when 374 caught the virus and 329 died – a fatality rate of 88 per cent.

Last year, in the first outbreak to hit West Africa, Guinea also reported one case. Although 170 contacts were monitored, the virus did not spread more broadly.

The UN has sent an emergency team to Ghana to try to prevent a serious outbreak.

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