Marburg hemorrhagic fever is one of the world’s deadliest diseases. While not always fatal, infection with the Marburg virus generally causes serious illness. There is no vaccine or drug therapy available for those who become infected and we know that as many of 90 percent of those infected during outbreaks have died.
Members of CDC’s Special Pathogens Branch recently were part of a team of scientists that successfully isolated the Marburg virus from a common species of African fruit bat, Rousettus aegyptiacus. Scientists have been looking for the Marburg virus since the first recognized outbreak in 1967, but have never been able to definitively identify the natural host.
The team traveled to Uganda in August 2007 and May 2008 to conduct a study in the Kitaka mine near Ibanda village in western Uganda. The mine was the site of a small 2007 outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever among the lead and gold miners who work in it.
The team suspected bats might be a reservoir for the virus. By testing tissue samples from apparently healthy bats they were able to capture at that site, they were able to isolate actual infectious viruses, and genetically link them to the virus that infected those miners. That link suggests the bats were the source of the 2007 outbreak.
The large populations of African fruit bats in these mines, as well as in the caves that are popular tourist attractions in Africa, offer many opportunities for close contact between bats and humans. By identifying the natural source of this virus, appropriate public health resources can be directed to prevent future outbreaks.
The team had hoped to find the natural host of the virus when they started their work in the Kitaka mine. There’s more work to do as the team continues to study transmission of the Marburg virus in nature with their colleagues from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Uganda Virus Research Institute.
Read “Isolation of genetically diverse Marburg viruses from Egyptian fruit bats” from the July 2009 issue of PLoS Pathogens.