Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2005

KU professor predicts virus outbreak

Marburg has killed 117 so far in Angola

March 31, 2005

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The recent deadly outbreak of the Ebola-like Marburg virus in Angola -- far west of similar outbreaks in the past -- raised eyebrows among some scientists.

But not Townsend Peterson, a Kansas University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He helped develop a map more than a year ago predicting Angola could be hit by the virus, which has killed 117 in the African nation since October 2004.

"It's terrible this is happening, but at the very least this is teaching us something about the ecology of where these things originate," Peterson said. "There's been a large amount of study, and still nobody knows anything."

There have only been five known outbreaks of the Marburg virus, all occurring since 1967. The worst case was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where at least 120 people died between 1998 and 2000.

The virus results in high fever, headaches, nausea, and vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by blood.

The latest outbreak has affected 124 people, with 117 dead in Angola. The Angolan government announced Tuesday it would require those who had visited the heavily hit Uige province from leaving the country for 21 days, which is the incubation period for the virus.

"We're preparing to hold a meeting with the donor community and foreign oil companies to calm them down," Jose Van Dunem, deputy health minister, told Reuters news service. "There is no reason to panic."

But he added: "It's not realistic to say that everything is under control."

Italian doctor Maria Bonino is seen with an unidentified child at
the hospital of Uige, a province along the Congo border. Bonino is
believed to have died in Luanda, Angola, of the Ebola-like fever
Marburg, a disease studied by Kansas University professor Townsend
Peterson.

Italian doctor Maria Bonino is seen with an unidentified child at the hospital of Uige, a province along the Congo border. Bonino is believed to have died in Luanda, Angola, of the Ebola-like fever Marburg, a disease studied by Kansas University professor Townsend Peterson.

Like the closely related Ebola, scientists know the virus harbors in some sort of animal without harming it. But they don't know what the originating animal is.

Townsend has worked for several years with a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other universities in trying to determine the source of Marburg and Ebola.

The predictive map he developed, published in the January 2004 issue of "Emerging Infectious Diseases," was based on climatic and animal data from the areas where Marburg has been found. He said many scientists questioned whether the map accurately predicted that the possible Marburg zone could stretch west into Angola.

"We got a little flack for that," he said.

Even so, he said he didn't expect to see another outbreak so soon after the 2000 outbreak in the Congo.

"It blew me away," he said. "It's within the prediction, but in 40 years we've only seen five outbreaks of Marburg. You don't expect to see another for a decade."

Most of the other outbreaks have been traced to caves or mines, Townsend said. If that remains the case, scientists can narrow the list of possible animal suspects to between 50 and 80.

The group is hoping to secure funding to go to Africa to collect animals for testing.

"It's all about somebody being in the right place at the right time," Townsend said. "Nobody's been at the right place at the right time yet. I really, really want to know this. Once a few questions are answered, everything will begin to click into place."

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