Why should you care about Marburg?

Dr. Rob Fowler sitting with WHO colleagues outside a training centre in Sierra Leong.
Dr. Rob Fowler (second from right) with World Health Organization colleagues at the Ebola Clinical Training Centre in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo credit: Rob Fowler)

Earlier this year, Equatorial Guinea declared its first outbreak of Marburg virus disease, with 11 confirmed deaths so far. The disease is caused by Marburg virus, which belongs to the same family of viruses as Ebola, and presents with similar symptoms including high fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, and occasionally severe bleeding.

Dr. Rob Fowler is a critical care physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He volunteered with the World Health Organization (WHO) on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 to 2015 and in Congo in 2018, and this past year, co-chaired the WHO guideline development group that published the first guidelines for Ebola virus disease therapeutics.

I was privileged to be able to chat with Dr. Fowler recently to talk about the recent Marburg outbreak, what lessons we can take away from Ebola and how Canadian researchers and clinicians can help.

BZ: How did you react when you first found out that the cluster of people who died of suspected hemorrhagic fever had tested positive for Marburg virus?

RF: Well, anytime there’s a Marburg outbreak, it’s worrisome. Historically, it’s a virus that spreads efficiently from person to person and the mortality has typically been very high. Like Ebola, this virus often shows up in areas that have underdeveloped healthcare systems and a lot of characteristics within society at large that enable person-to-person spread. Tight living quarters is one example. These areas oftentimes don’t have the ability to limit virus spread because of a lack of access to consistent running water. So you know that Marburg or Ebola outbreaks are of course very tough for patients and healthcare teams, but also very difficult for the healthcare system and the population at large to manage. I feel for the folks that are in the thick of it right now because it’s very, very hard.

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