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Marburg virus outbreak: Life goes on in subdued, worried Uige

© WHO/Caetano
A mother brings her child to Uige hospital. Some residents have been afraid to visit the hospital for any health needs, fearing that they would contract the Marburg virus.

By Karen Iliy
Karen Iliy is a correspondent for the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN).

LUANDA, Angola, 6 April 2005 – Residents of Angola’s northern Uige province, the epicentre of a hemorrhagic fever outbreak which has killed more than 150 people, are trying to get on with their lives as best as they can despite living under the shadow of the deadly epidemic.
Teca García, UNICEF’s Resident Programme Officer in Uige, told IRIN (a UN humanitarian news and information service) that the sheer horror which had hounded the provincial capital in the days after the Marburg virus was identified as the cause had subsided as the local population learnt more about the bug.

“There is still a lot of fear among the people, but the panic has to some extent passed thanks to the social mobilization officers getting information to the people,” he said in a telephone interview from the provincial capital, also called Uige.

 “There are people in the streets, in shops and at work. They are walking around. They are very quiet, but they are going about their daily lives,” he said.

Terrified that they may catch the disease just by breathing the Uige air, some residents had taken to wearing masks while going about their everyday activities, unduly fuelling the atmosphere of panic.

But García said this alarmist behaviour had stopped thanks to intensive campaigns to spell out the exact facts of the disease – how it is spread, and how to prevent infection.

“The masks are now confined to the hospital. People are not wandering round the streets wearing them – this is not the situation,” he said.

With the challenge now to actively survey the municipalities for cases of the disease and corpses, it was common to see those in charge of surveillance and removing bodies wearing masks, gloves and protective suits.

But these workers were moving discreetly from their vehicles to hospitals and morgues, and not parading through the town, García said.

Marburg is an Ebola-like virus which spreads on contact with body fluids, such as blood, urine, excrement, vomit and saliva. There is no known cure.

The Angolan epidemic, which has steadily escalated since October, is the world’s worst, with over 150 deaths to date from over 170 cases. The previous record was in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo when an outbreak in 1998-2000 claimed 123 lives.

García said that while the efforts to educate Uige’s population have proven very effective so far, much more needs to be done. Conveying the hard facts of the disease while remaining sensitive to traditional customs, burial rights and even views on witchcraft is a delicate balance.

“We need more people on the ground to talk to everyone, to provide information to the people in all 16 municipalities of Uige,” Garcia said.

“When people know the facts of the disease, it helps a lot in terms of combating its spread. It’s a big challenge but it must be tackled,” he added.



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