A health worker in protective clothing peers out from behind barriers marking the isolation ward [Photo: Reuters]

By Gaure Mdee

When a mysterious disease started claiming lives in a village in Tanzania’s Bukoba district, the local councillor, Hamisi Hassan Byeyombo, took charge.

As the chief spokesperson of the ward and development chairman, he knew it was his responsibility to investigate and take action.

On the night of March 15, Byeyombo was informed of a fourth member of a family dying from an unknown illness.

“At 10pm, the family members came to my house to inform me of the death and ask how we could deal with it. I opted to investigate by going to the hospital to ask questions,” adds Byeyombo.

He went to the Mtoma Health Centre where the family members were declared dead. And as he was inquiring, he was told of another patient who was on his last breath.

“I called the District Medical Officer and the Municipal Director at 1 am to give them this information of the people dying of mysterious circumstances, as it was getting concerning,” Byeyomba said.

“The DMO and RMO arrived the next morning to take samples to investigate and discuss funeral proceedings for those who had passed away.”

The RMO sent the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) clinical samples to the National Public Health Laboratory located in the commercial city of Dar-es-Salaam.

On March 21, 2023, the Ministry of Health of Tanzania announced a Marburg Virus Disease (MVD) outbreak in the country.

It is transmitted to people from fruit bats and then spreads through contact with bodily fluids of infected people.

The symptoms include high fever, severe headache and malaise which typically develop within seven days of infection, according to the WHO.

Tanzania’s outbreak came a month after Equatorial Guinea confirmed its first-ever outbreak of Marburg virus disease too.

When the minister announced on the 21st of March that it was Marburg, I was so shocked as I thought of it as a disease from very far away.

Hamisi Hassan Byeyombo

Both countries have confirmed a total of 21 cases.

The man, Councillor Byeyombe, found that night at Mtoma Health Centre was, Mushobozi Washington, who was breathing his last breaths.

Byeyombe immediately arranged his transfer to a quaratine centre in the same district, Bukoba.

'Coughing blood'

Washington is a survivor of the MVD; he contracted it on February 28, after he escorted a fellow fisherman to a hospital.

“I had heard that the man had come from a wedding so I thought someone had beaten him up when I saw his blood shot eyes and coughing blood so on the way to the hospital I wiped his face with a cloth not knowing what his disease was.” Washington told TRT Afrika.

A few days after the rescue, Washington started feeling tired, so he went to a local pharmacy to get some pain killers. He was also tested for malaria. It came out negative.

Five days later his situation worsened as he began vomiting every two to three hours.

“I live with my wife and two other family members, so when my condition started getting worse, I told her I needed to go to the hospital, so they took me. My mother, who lives with us, fell ill shortly after.” Washington said.

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He was at the Mtoma Health Centre for one week on bed rest, still vomiting regularly and on an IV drip.

“I was told my mother was very ill. I asked people at the hospital if they could let me leave and go take care of my mother but when I got there she was taken to hospital and I stayed at home, I had no energy and started coughing blood”.

On the 15th of March Washington’s mother died.

Washington couldn't attend the funeral as he was in the quarantine centre for 23 days. He was brought home after he recovered from the virus.

There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine for Marburg virus, and the disease is managed through supportive care, such as intravenous fluids, electrolyte replacement, and treatment of secondary infections.

The Tanzanian government announced last week that the country is Marburg-free and is open to visitors. Quarantine centre are closing soon as well.

However, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that although Marburg is considered “a very rare disease in people”, when it occurs, it has the potential to spread” and can be fatal.

TRT Afrika