Marburg virus: What does it mean for Australia?

After the Marburg virus claimed nine lives in west Africa, an infectious disease expert assesses the risk of the disease reaching Australia.

A recent outbreak of the Marburg virus has already claimed the lives of nine people in Equatorial Guinea, west Africa, with an additional 16 suspected cases reported.

The sudden surge in numbers has left worldwide health authorities on high alert.

Authorities from neighbouring Cameroon have since reported two suspected cases — two 16-year-old children. But it’s "very unlikely we’ll actually see a case here in Australia," says Dr Paul Griffin, Infectious Diseases Physician and Microbiologist.

The Ebola-related virus is "highly infectious" with reports out of Africa indicating a mortality rate of up to 88 per cent. While easily transmissible between humans through contact of bodily fluids, Dr Griffin says transmission can be reduced with the right resourcing and approach if ever it reach our shores.

Two health workers, wearing protection outfits, leave isolated area at hospital with people infected by Marburg virus.
An outbreak of the Marburg virus has put health authorities on high alert. Source: Getty

"I think for the general public there’s very little they need to be aware of," Dr Griffin told Yahoo News Australia. However, local health authorities will be working towards ensuring a level of preparedness "from a laboratory capability and a hospital capability point of view" to minimise the prospect of onward transmission.

"We certainly don’t want to give the impression we’re going to see any cases here, let alone a lot of cases," he explained. "But as always we want people to have that basic awareness, so if there are any potential cases we can manage them as well as possible."

Symptoms and treatment of the Marburg virus

Common symptoms of Marburg include fever, severe headaches, chills and muscle pain. Nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pain are also commonly experienced. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is an incubation period of between 2 and 21 days before symptoms abruptly start to show in an infected individual.

Currently there are no vaccines or antiviral treatments available to treat Marburg virus but the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed that "supportive care," such as prioritising rehydration and treatment of individual symptoms, can increase survival rate.

Marburg virus bat
It's believed the Marburg virus could have come from bats. Source: Getty

Dr Griffin suggests the mortality rate in Australia "won’t be that 88 per cent figure" should it ever reach us, mostly because of the access we have to supportive therapy. Screening people travelling in affected areas is also a way of controlling the disease, he said.

It's not yet known what caused the recent outbreak but the virus is believed to be related to bats and potentially other animals.

"Changes in the habitat of bats and animals over there can have an impact on some of these infections having a greater chance of mixing with people, so maybe there’s some factors there, but at this stage I think it’s too early to know why it’s popped up," says Dr Griffin.

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