No more hugging in virus-hit Angolan city

Fearful of a rare and deadly virus that has killed 210 people, inhabitants of the northern Angolan city of Uige have given up their traditional greeting of wrapping friends and acquaintances in a hug.

Locals welcomed a reporter on Thursday by touching right legs covered by trousers—a new custom devised to help check the spread of the Ebola-like Marburg virus, which is passed by contact with bodily fluids and has no cure.

Disease experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the medical aid group Médécins sans Frontières and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are in Uige, about 300km north of Luanda, the capital, trying to stamp out the disease.

The WHO said in its latest bulletin the death toll climbed to 210 by April 11, with 190 of the deaths reported in Uige, where the outbreak is believed to have started six months ago.

The agency said medical teams are focusing their efforts on detecting cases and quickly isolating them, as well as collecting bodies for swift burial.

Security remains a major concern for health workers, the United Nations health agency said. Hostile villagers are continuing to throw rocks at medical teams when they arrive to contain the outbreak.

“There are serious security concerns in some provinces,” said David Daigle, WHO spokesperson in Angola. “We’ve got to make the people understand what we are trying to do.”

Foreign experts have recruited traditional healers and Roman Catholic Church leaders to help educate locals about the disease.

They are giving talks at markets and schools, the WHO said.

Foreign aid groups say panicked locals are hiding infected family members, fearing they might never see them again if they are taken to isolation units.

“It’s still looking really messy,” WHO spokesperson Maria Cheng said from the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
“We don’t know where we are with the outbreak yet. We can’t tell yet when it will peak. It could be very early stages.”

The last outbreak of Marburg haemorrhagic fever, which occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo, lasted from 1998 to 2000. That outbreak, which until now was the biggest, killed 128 people.

Another challenge in Angola is that some in Uige have insisted on performing ritual burial ceremonies, which involve touching the body.

Groups of locals threw stones last week at a WHO team that wanted to place a body in a plastic bag and take it away for immediate burial. Workers from Médécins sans Frontières also were attacked by locals who feared the teams had brought the virus with them and were responsible for spreading it.

The disease can also be transmitted by items such as clothing and bedding that have been contaminated by an infected person.

Angola’s protracted civil war, which ended in 2002, wrecked the south-west African country’s public infrastructure, including hospitals and roads.

Most people in this lush, fertile region surrounded by low hills live on less than $1 a day. They mostly live on food they grow, and raise tiny amounts of cash from selling surplus produce.

Uige is believed to have a population of about 200 000, though public records are unreliable.—Sapa-AP

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