Fear stalks virus-hit Angolan town

Fear stalked the streets on Saturday in the squalid northern Angolan town of Uige, devastated by years of civil war and now the epicentre of an outbreak of the killer Marburg virus, which has claimed 180 lives so far.

In Uige province alone, 160 people have been killed by the virus, which has claimed 98% of those infected in the outbreak, described by the United Nations as “the worst ever” and “not yet under control”.

In Uige town, where fierce fighting between government and rebel troops in Angola’s civil war raged until about two years ago, health workers dressed in head-to-toe “Ebola suits” were on their way to pick up a man dying from haemorrhagic fever, as residents struggled to continue with their daily lives under the constant threat of death.

“We are afraid here all the time,” said Octavio Vicente (25), a Uige resident who works for the UN’s World Food Programme.

“People are scared here. They are scared to go to the hospital, because that is where everybody got sick,” he said at the town’s small and rundown airport, which still bears bullet holes from the war.

The Ebola-like Marburg virus, whose exact origin is unknown, spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood, excrement, vomit, saliva, sweat and tears, but can be contained with relatively simple health precautions, according to experts.

The outbreak has spread to seven of Angola’s 18 provinces, and has overtaken an earlier Marburg outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the largest recorded to date. It was first detected in 1967 when German laboratory workers in Marburg were infected by monkeys from Uganda.

Health workers battling the disease say they have met with heavy resistance from some local communities in Uige.

Normally, custom here dictates that families spend a lot of time with the bodies of the dead before they dispose of the corpse.
But that is when the virus is most virulent.

“You can imagine a team coming, taking a child away to the hospital and three days later the family learns that the child is already dead and buried,” added Alain Epelboin, French anthropologist of the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research.

Amada Pedro (23), a Uige resident, said: “The people say the sick are not animals to be buried like this. The population is revolted and are throwing stones at the teams who are going to pick up the corpses.”

She added: “Nobody knew how to defend themselves. The families don’t accept the way they buried the bodies

“This situation is very stressful because we have never been faced with this kind of event.”

An eerie silence hangs over the hospital in Uige, which doctors now believe is the main source of the Marburg virus, for which there is no known cure.

Neglected and faded pink buildings house few patients, and the isolation ward has been cordoned off by health experts from Médécins sans Frontières (MSF).

“Do not enter without authorisation,” reads a sign in English and Portuguese.

“The hospital has been the main source of infection,” said MSF emergency coordinator Monica de Castellarnau.

She said people infected by the virus went to the hospital, where they infected doctors and nurses, who in turn infected other patients.

“We have to break that circle,” she said, adding that MSF is recommending that the hospital be closed “because it was still contaminated”.—Sapa-AFP