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What is Marburg virus, a disease that damages blood vessels spread from Germany and Serbia’s laboratories

Marburg virus disease

Marburg virus disease (MVD) is a rare but severe hemorrhagic fever which affects both people and non-human primates. MVD is caused by the Marburg virus, a genetically unique zoonotic (or animal-borne) RNA virus of the filovirus family. The six species of Ebola virus are the only other known members of the filovirus family.

Marburg virus was first recognized in 1967, when outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever occurred simultaneously in laboratories in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany and in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). Thirty-one people became ill, initially laboratory workers followed by several medical personnel and family members who had cared for them. Seven deaths were reported. The first people infected had been exposed to Ugandan imported African green monkeys or their tissues while conducting research.

The reservoir host of Marburg virus is a type of fruit bat native to Africa called the Egyptian rousette bat, or Rousettus aegyptiacus. Bats infected with Marburg virus do not show obvious signs of illness. Primates (including people) can become infected with Marburg virus, which can cause serious illness or death. Further study is needed to determine if other species may also host the virus.

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The Egyptian rousette bat is a cave-dwelling bat that is found widely across Africa. Given the bat’s broad geographic spread, more areas are potentially at risk for outbreaks of MVD than previously suspected.

MVD appears in sporadic outbreaks throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many past outbreaks started with male mine workers in bat-infested mines. The virus then spread within their communities through cultural practices, within families, and among healthcare staff. It is possible that isolated cases occur occasionally, as well, but go unrecognized.

Cases of MVD in people have occurred outside Africa but are infrequent. In addition to the 1967 laboratory exposures in Europe that led to the discovery of the virus, a Dutch tourist developed MVD after returning to the Netherlands from Uganda in 2008, and subsequently died. That same year, an American traveler developed MVD after returning to the US from Uganda and recovered. Both travelers had visited a well-known cave inhabited by fruit bats in a national park. See the History of Outbreaks table for a chronological list of known cases and outbreaks.

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