LUANDA, Angola – On her daily bus commute, Virginia Jamba overheard people talking in horrified tones about an incurable disease that was killing people in a city north of the capital.
Jamba, a 42-year-old mother of seven, consulted her Roman Catholic priest. He explained there was an outbreak of Marburg virus (search), a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola (search), and told her it was passed by contact with bodily fluids.
Jamba's reliance on her priest is typical in Angola. And it is why government and aid agency officials have turned to clerics, village elders and traditional healers to get out the word on the disease. With the death toll at 237 Thursday, the public awareness campaign is key to efforts to check Marburg.
There is no vaccine for the disease, which can kill rapidly. The last and previously most severe outbreak of Marburg occurred in Congo between 1998 and 2000, killing 128 people.
Samuel Paulo, a health official in Uige, the city 180 miles north of Luanda (search) where most Marburg cases have been detected, said authorities have recruited 6,000 volunteers to go door-to-door explaining how to prevent infection.
Thirty doctors and nurses also are being sent to Uige from the capital to help fight the disease, Health Minister Sebastiao Veloso said. "It's clear [the virus] is contained in Uige," he said Thursday, adding that authorities hope to stamp out Marburg by the end of next month.
Teams from the World Health Organization (search), the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (search), the International Red Cross (search) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) also are in Uige.
The information campaign in Uige includes a song written by a local group and broadcast on radio that describes how to guard against Marburg. Officials are also issuing information pamphlets, even though many people in the area are illiterate.
"The campaign is already bearing fruit," Paulo said by telephone from Uige. "People are dropping their resistance to the medical teams."
The disease control efforts have encountered problems — some Uige-area villagers pelted medical teams with rocks when they arrived to collect the dead or the ailing. Residents have also hidden infected relatives.
Four Marburg victims have died in Luanda, capital of this former Portuguese colony on the southwest coast of Africa. All had recently been in Uige. Dozens of suspected cases have been reported in four other provinces.
In Luanda, yellow pamphlets are being distributed in the streets, advising: "In case of death, don't take home, nor touch, wash, embrace nor kiss the body of a loved one who might have contracted this disease."
In some parts of the country, ritual burial ceremonies involve touching and washing the naked body. Many people now living in Luanda fled homes in the provinces during the civil war that 2002, and have kept to the traditions of their birthplaces.
A recommendation for people to wash with diluted bleach if they suspect contact with an infected person has translated into a run on bottles of bleach, emptying shelves in some shops.
"I've stocked up on bleach. I'm not taking any chances," said Jamba, after climbing off her bus.