Virus hunters swathed in protective gear are preparing to enter a lead and gold mine in a remote Kamwenge searching for what they think may have been the source of the latest outbreak of a deadly, Ebola-like disease.
Dr. Pierre Formenty, a hemorrhagic fever expert at the World Health Organization, told the associated press that this will be a very delicate operation.
Formenty and about two dozen others from WHO, the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Ugandan Ministry of Health and other partners will don special gowns, boots, masks, goggles, and leather gloves before entering the mine, swarming with different species of bats, which some believe may play a role in transmitting the Marburg virus to humans.
Last week, WHO confirmed one case of Marburg in a 29-year-old man who worked at the mine and who died on July 14.
The medical investigators will attempt to catch 1,000 live bats, to be transported to a mobile laboratory nearby. There, they will take fresh blood samples to look for antibodies and live virus, before killing the animals and removing their livers and spleens. Bats have long been suspected to play a role in transmitting Ebola and Marburg to humans.
The team may also take blood samples from miners and villagers in the area, to see if they might have inadvertently been exposed to Marburg by testing for antibodies.
Experts think that sporadic cases of hemorrhagic fever in the region are not uncommon, and that cases have probably gone undetected for years. Some in the region believe that certain miners are cursed with the disease for removing gold from the mines.
Marburg, like Ebola, is a rare and virulent disease for which there are no cures or effective treatments. Scientists are not even sure how it is transmitted to humans. Marburg causes headaches, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. In severe cases, the central nervous system is attacked, and patients may bleed from the eyes, ears and elsewhere.
Since Marburg was first identified in 1967, in Germany, large outbreaks have been reported in Congo, Angola and other countries.
Unlike previous Marburg outbreaks, where doctors have been preoccupied trying to save peoples' lives, the number of patients in the current Ugandan outbreak appears to be limited. In addition to the death WHO confirmed as a Marburg case, one other "highly probable" case is still alive, and health authorities are monitoring about 100 other contacts of the two cases. Both men worked in the mine.
Some 5 million bats, as well other animals and insects, live in and around the mine at the center of the outbreak.