Traditional healers linked to spread of virus in Angola

Reused needles might be at fault, specialists say


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- International health specialists battling an outbreak of Marburg virus in Angola suspect unorthodox medical practices by local traditional healers may be contributing to the spread of the deadly disease.

The experts suggest that the healers, who lack medical training and supplies but substitute for doctors in many rural African communities, are administering injections in homes or in makeshift clinics with reused needles or syringes.

In the northern Angolan province of Uige, where 233 people have died of the Marburg virus, epidemiologists say they must convince people that such practices can mean death.

Dr. Pierre Formenty, an expert in hemorrhagic fevers such as Marburg and a member of the World Health Organization's team in Uige, said Saturday that unsafe injections could explain why an average of three people per day continue to die of the Marburg virus a month after the outbreak was identified and international teams arrived in Angola to battle it.

Although it is not clear what solutions the healers are injecting, specialists said, the virus can easily be transmitted from an infected to an uninfected person through a contaminated needle or syringe.

"I would say it is bit bizarre that we still have these high numbers per week," Formenty said in a telephone interview with reporters.

He said medical workers had developed a campaign against injections at home, "asking people to use other kinds of medicines or to come to hospital or the health center to have a safe injection with new devices."

Formenty and other specialists said that while intense efforts to track possible cases and limit the potential for transmission of the virus were clearly helping to curtail the epidemic, it is not clear whether the outbreak had peaked. At least 244 people have died of the virus so far, all but 11 of them in Uige.

"I would say that it's just a gut feeling that maybe things are going better in the sense that people are reporting more and more systematically the deaths," Formenty said. Other encouraging signs, international specialists said, include the arrival on Thursday of a 28-member Angolan medical team in Uige and the opening of a fever ward at the provincial hospital, which had to be closed for disinfection.

"Certainly we are breaking the chain of transmission," said Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's alert and response operations. But he said the coming days would demand an even more aggressive effort to stop the spread of the virus.

"This is the most critical time now in the response, now that we are beginning to get things under control," he said.

When asked why it took a month for Angolan health authorities to send a team of specialists to Uige, Ryan said only that the authorities had been worried the epidemic would spread to Luanda, where crowded conditions and an international airport could help the virus spread out of control, and to elsewhere in Angola.

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