Ebola is a filovirus, and although it is the best-known of the Filovirdae, it’s no worse than its cousin, Marburg virus. One is named for the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the other is named for a town in Germany. But how did a virus from Africa get a German name?
Marburg virus is a hemorrhagic fever that, like many others (including Ebola), originates in Africa. Hemorrhagic fevers earn their name by damaging the blood vessels, causing nearly every part of the body to leak blood. They have an incredibly high death rate. One strain of Marburg virus has a ninety percent fatality rate. There have been fatal cases reported in Kenya, Angola, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Marburg virus first became world news when it killed laboratory workers in Germany and Serbia in 1967. Early accounts call it “Green Monkey Disease.” It had infected a group of green monkeys that were taken to Marburg, Frankfurt, and Belgrade for laboratory research. Laboratory workers were using the monkeys to develop polio vaccines, but used little personal protection while working with tissue cultures.
Given the circumstances, it’s surprising that so few people got sick: only 25 lab worked in three cities. And only six people contracted the sickness from the laboratory workers. (Most of them were hospital workers who had attended the patients. One was the wife of the veterinarian working with the monkeys.) Marburg was by far the hardest hit, with twenty-three of the total cases and a 30 percent death rate. By 1969, researchers were nicknaming the strange zoonotic disease “Marburg virus.”
Over the years, there have been a few other laboratory outbreaks, but all of them involved researchers who were studying the disease itself. There have been many more outbreaks in the wild. According to the World Health Organization, there may be vaccines on the horizon, but they are all in their testing stage.