Marburg, bird flu and MVE: Why you need to be aware of these viruses

It seems every few months there is another virus people need to be aware of.

Last week, health authorities in the Northern Territory confirmed a person had died from Murray Valley encephalitis (MVE).

The woman, aged in her 70s, was treated for MVE at Royal Darwin Hospital and it is most likely she contracted the virus in Darwin.

In addition, Victorian health authorities confirmed late last week that a woman who died from Murray Valley encephalitis was the first in the state to contract the disease in Victoria in almost five decades.

The woman, aged in her 60s, lived in the Buloke Shire in Victoria’s north-west.

Health authorities believe she likely became infected there or at Swan Hill along the Murray River in early January.

Both areas were impacted by severe flooding in late 2022, which provided ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes which carry the virus.

It was initially thought she had contracted Japanese encephalitis virus however that was ruled out after her death.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has confirmed the first outbreak of Marburg disease in Equatorial Guinea.

The WHO confirmed the viral haemorrhagic fever was responsible for nine deaths in the country’s western Kie-Ntem Province.

There has also been a lot of buzz around bird flu abroad, with health experts raising concerns about mammals dying from the disease.

When experts raise concern about these diseases and viruses, it’s never to cause panic or alarm, but rather educate the public, infectious diseases expert Paul Griffin told The New Daily.

“A lot of people are quite opposed to hearing about these things, saying that we’re trying to propagate to you or to doomsday scenario, etc,” Dr Griffin said.

“What we really want is just a basic awareness so that people can take simple measures to reduce their risk.

There are several reasons why it seems as though there’s a fresh outbreak of something new every few months.

Changing animal habitats, climate change and weather events such as flooding could definitely be playing a part. But we are also better at identifying viruses and communicating, Dr Griffin said.

What is Murray Valley Encephalitis?

Australia has a few encephalitis-causing viruses such as MVE and Japanese encephalitis (JE), Dr Griffin said.

“They will cause a fairly similar spectrum of disease. They’re encephalitis viruses so they cause inflammation of the brain and [are] transmitted by mosquitoes. They’re hard to diagnose,” he said.

Testing modalities are fairly limited, Dr Griffin said, and with lessons learned from Japanese encephalitis, we know that milder or less symptomatic cases are harder to pick up.

With the swelling of the Murray River, thanks to significant rainfall, the number of mosquitoes that can carry diseases goes up significantly.

Japanese encephalitis

Thanks to the wet weather, mosquitoes carrying Murray Valley encephalitis might be on the rise.

NT Health warns MVE is rare but can be fatal and symptoms include severe headache, high fever, drowsiness, tremor and seizures, especially in young children.

In some cases, MVE can progress to delirium, coma, permanent brain damage or, in 30 per cent of cases, death.

In 20 years, there have been five deaths from MVE in the Northern Territory. Since February 2021 there have been three cases of JE, one fatal.

Wetlands surrounding Darwin’s northern suburbs have been sprayed to prevent mosquito breeding, but people are urged to be vigilant.

What’s happening with Marburg virus disease?

Dr Griffin said Marburg virus was, like ebola, a haemorrhagic fever.

It is far less infectious than ebola and for it to be transmitted, people need to come into contact with bodily fluids, meaning precautions can be taken.

Marburg also has a high fatality rate of up to 88 per cent. In addition to the nine associated deaths, there are 16 suspected cases in Equatorial Guinea.

There are also two suspected cases in Cameroon, which shares a border with Equatorial Guinea.

“But we did have to take into account that ebola had a very high fatality rate before the most recent outbreaks that we saw, and that was largely due to the limited management that was available to people that had had that before that time,” Dr Griffin said.

An emergency response was under way, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organisation regional director for Africa said.

WHO has already met to discuss the outbreak.

Dr Griffin believes it is unlikely Marburg will make its way to Australia, but he still believes it’s important people are aware of the outbreak.

“Our best way of addressing these types of infectious diseases is for people to have a basic awareness,” he said.

However, the return of international travel after its COVID is a major concern.

“The world is a very small place and travel is readily accessible once again, and so the whole world needs to be aware of what’s happening,” Dr Griffin said.

Bird flu appears in mammals

Dr Griffin said news overseas about bird flu was a “watch this space” situation.

It was being monitored closely, and people should not be alarmed.

Earlier in February, several wild ducks in the US state of Maine were found dead and tested positive for bird flu. Millions of birds were culled in Japan and nearly 60 million cases have been identified in poultry in the US.

What is more alarming is the growing number of mammals, such as mink, skunks, bears, seal, foxes and dolphins, found to also have the disease.

It’s not a new virus. It has been around for a long time, but the situation has clearly evolved,” Dr Griffin said.

He said the jump to mammals might suggest bird flu had ability to readily infect mammals. It’s believed fewer than 10 people have contracted the virus globally, all of whom had “significant” contact with infected animals, Dr Griffin said.

There was an evolutionary process with viruses, he said, and they sometimes gained the ability to infect new species in crossover events.

As yet, it is not believed that bird flu has been transmitted from human to human.

How would we handle the next pandemic?

Sometimes when a virus emerges or re-emerges, there are questions about whether it has the potential to bring the world to a screeching halt – as COVID did.

The better question is perhaps: Will we be able to handle another global pandemic?

Yes and no, Dr Griffin said.

With the world’s new-found experience of rapidly scaling up vaccines and sourcing treatments, we could be in a better position to deal with a new virus.

However, some of the missteps with COVID could be serious barriers for managing a new virus.

Opposition to mask wearing, vaccine hesitancy and a lot of misinformation could present a huge challenge.

“While fundamentally we would be in a better position, we will also have our work cut out for us particularly about addressing misinformation,” he said.

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