The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that the death toll from the Marburg virus epidemic in Equatorial Guinea has risen to 20, with Malabo reporting six more deaths in 10 days.
Cases of the haemorrhagic fever, which is nearly as lethal as Ebola, have spread from the province of Kie-Ntem, where the first reported deaths occurred on January 7, to Bata, the economic hub of this small central African country that is partly an island and partly a continent.
This spread "suggests wider virus transmission" and necessitates "intensified response efforts to avoid a large-scale epidemic and loss of life," the WHO cautioned in a statement.
"Between March 11 and March 20, eight cases were confirmed, six of which died," the Equatorial Guinean government reported on its website, without providing a total toll since the outbreak began. On February 28, the official death toll stood at 11.
"To date, there are 20 probable cases and 20 deaths," the WHO said, adding that the latest cases have been reported in the provinces of Kié-Ntem, Litoral, and Centro Sur, all of which borders Cameroon and Gabon.
The virus has now spread to three of the four mainland provinces, from east to west. According to the authorities, Bata, a port on the Gulf of Guinea with a population of roughly 250,000 people, is "affected."
The government's efforts, assisted by the WHO, to contain the virus in Kié-Ntem were so insufficient.
"Additional WHO experts will be deployed in the coming days," according to the UN agency, which is also "assisting Gabon and Cameroon in strengthening their preparedness and response to the epidemic."
Tanzania also reported on Tuesday the beginnings of a Marburg epidemic, with five deaths.
The virus is transmitted to humans by fruit bats and spreads in humans by direct contact with infected people's bodily fluids or surfaces and materials.
The case fatality rate can reach 88%.
The virus has no licensed vaccination or antiviral treatment.
However, supportive care such as oral or intravenous rehydration and treatment of specific symptoms improves survival prospects.
According to WHO, a variety of prospective treatments, including blood products, immunological therapies and medicines, as well as candidate vaccines with phase 1 results, are being studied.
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