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Fear over Marburg virus in Mt Elgon National Park

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned visitors to the Mt Elgon National Park over the possible risk of Marburg virus disease.

In a statement WHO says the park, which straddles into Uganda, has caves which host large colonies of cave-dwelling fruit bats, known to transmit the Marburg virus.

The caves and their nearness to the affected area in Uganda,  increases the risk of cross border virus spread between human and bat populations in the two countries, WHO said.

“Tourists to Mount Elgon, including the caves and surrounding areas, should be warned and appropriate advice given and precautions taken,” said WHO.

The global health body has advised travellers to the caves to avoid exposure to fruit bats and contact with non-human primates. Visitors are advised to wear gloves and protective clothing, including masks.

The caution comes at a time WHO, other international agencies, and the Kenya and Uganda governments, have mobilised teams to contain a Marburg outbreak in Uganda.

One of the confirmed patients had travelled to Kenya prior to his death, but so far no human-to-human transmission has been confirmed outside of Uganda.

WHO says several teams have been deployed to conduct risk assessments and surveillance in Trans Nzoia and West Pokot counties. Mt Elgon National Park in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties and straddling into Uganda has been suspected of hosting the Marburg virus since the death of two foreigners who visited the Elgon caves, one in 1980 and the other in 1987. The two, a 56-year-old Frenchman and a 15-year-old Danish male, died at Nairobi Hospital of Marburg virus disease according to WHO.

The only common thing about the two people, it was found, and which forms a central theme in the non-fiction scientific bestseller, The Hot Zone, was that both had visited the Kitum caves in Mount Elgon National Park. The Frenchman, while on treatment, infected his attending doctor who was treated by one of the Kenya’s top physicians, Dr David Silverstein, at Nairobi Hospital. The physician survived. Following the two cases in Kenya, scientists have been combing the Mt Elgon caves for the virus.

A team headed by Dr Bernard Agwanda of the National Museums of Kenya is mapping out all habitats of bats in the country and whether they host the Marburg virus.


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