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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Angola's town of fear and lonely death
Despite some progress in efforts to control the Marburg epidemic in Angola, fear still reigns in the town of Uige, reports BBC correspondent Barnaby Phillips.

WHO team visiting poor areas in Uige
Uige has been battered by years of war before the virus hit
We walked down a steep muddy path. Families stood outside their homes and watched us, without saying a word.

At the bottom of the hill, a local man pointed out the hut. Inside was the body of a one-month old baby girl. She had died alone, and in great pain.

The Marburg virus had already killed her mother; and the rest of the family had fled in fear.

The neighbours watched us with expressions of horror and guilt; for two days they had listened to the baby's cries, but were too afraid to go in and help her, in case they caught the virus.

The health workers prepared to go into the dark hut. They put on layer after layer of protective clothing; white plastic bodysuits, white rubber boots, gloves and goggles.

'Spacemen'

They looked like spacemen, utterly out of place in this poor neighbourhood on the edge of Uige. It is no wonder that some local people fear the health workers, believing they are wizards or sorcerers.

They entered the hut, but not before spraying the door with chlorinated water. Then they picked up the tiny body, and wrapped it in white plastic.

MARBURG VIRUS
Transmitted through extremely close contact with blood or other body fluids
Incubation period lasts three to nine days
Symptoms start with severe headache, muscle ache and fever, followed by diarrhoea, abdominal pain and severe haemorrhagic manifestations
In fatal cases, death occurs eight or nine days after onset of symptoms
Source: WHO

Outside, they placed it in a coffin, which they also sprayed. Then, painstakingly, they removed their layers of protective clothing, frequently pausing to spray the discarded garments with more chlorinated water.

The corpse of a Marburg victim is highly contagious, so we drove to the cemetery straight away. There, amidst the rows of freshly dug graves belonging to other victims, the health workers said a hurried prayer, and lowered the coffin into the ground. Nobody was sure of the baby's name.

The Marburg virus is one of the world's most terrifying diseases. It is passed through bodily fluids, like sweat or saliva, and there is no cure for it.

Victims collapse with a fever, and suffer from vomiting and diarrhoea. Often they start to bleed from their mouth, nose and other orifices.

In this outbreak, the worst ever, some 90% of infected people die within a matter of days. More than 250 people have lost their lives, almost all of them in the vicinity of Uige.

Nobody knows for sure how the outbreak started; one theory is that people became infected by eating the contaminated meat of wild animals.

Unprepared

Uige is a war-torn, battered town that is ill-equipped to cope with this crisis. There is only very occasional electricity and running water.

The Angolan government was slow to respond to the outbreak, and as the death toll mounted, fear and panic spread through the town.

Women and medics outside clinic
At first, Uige residents were wary of the visiting doctors
The first international teams of doctors - from Medecins Sans Frontieres and the UN World Health Organization - were met with suspicion, and, in some cases, open hostility from the local population.

Often people refused to tell the authorities when a family member had fallen sick. This is disastrous, because unless Marburg victims are isolated, it is very difficult to contain the virus.

Calmer

Today, the situation is much calmer. The people of Uige have adopted a strict "no hand-shaking" policy, which makes for lots of awkward bowing and smiles at meetings. But schools and public offices are open again.

Belatedly, the government has mobilised its resources, flying in extra doctors from the capital, Luanda, and deploying the army to collect dead bodies.

Map of Angola
The international teams believe they have built up more trust and rapport with the local population.

David Daigle, a spokesman for the WHO, says health workers are now receiving more alerts about sick people, rather then dead bodies. He is also encouraged by the reduction of new cases.

"We have a whole contingent of Angolan doctors here now and we've strengthened our team sizes," he says.

"So we're optimistic, but certainly not ready to say it is contained".


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See how Angola is fighting the Marburg virus



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