St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Deadly virus forces Angolans to stop saying hello with a hug

By Associated Press
Published April 17, 2005

UIGE, Angola - Fearful of a deadly virus that has killed at least 210 people, inhabitants of this northern Angolan town have given up a tradition of greeting friends and acquaintances with a hug.

Instead, they tap right legs, avoiding all skin contact, a custom devised to help check the spread of the Marburg virus, which is passed by contact with bodily fluids and has no known cure.

An elderly woman visiting Uige's main market Thursday, where there was plenty of produce but few shoppers, said she had little hope of surviving the outbreak.

"We don't know if (the virus) was sent by God or the devil, but we're helpless either way," she said, conveying the deep sense of dread.

The woman, like others in this impoverished city of about 200,000 people, refused to give her name. She and others said they feared outsiders were spying on them or would force them to go to the local hospital where dozens have died of the disease.

The last outbreak of Marburg, a hemorrhagic fever named after the German city where it was discovered in 1967, occurred in Congo. It lasted from 1998 to 2000 and killed 128 people.

To check the disease's spread, foreign experts have streamed into this Angolan city 180 miles north of Luanda, the capital.

Local people don't understand why the disease appeared and often resent the measures taken to contain it, officials say. The WHO said in its latest bulletin that the death toll climbed to 210 last week, with 190 of the deaths reported in Uige, where the outbreak is thought to have started six months ago.

The agency said medical teams are focusing their efforts on detecting cases and quickly isolating them, as well as collecting bodies for swift burial.

But panicked residents are hiding family members who fall ill for fear they will be taken away and never be seen again, officials say. That is increasing fears of contagion, and whole families in Uige have died from the virus. The disease can be transmitted by items such as clothing and bedding contaminated by fluids from an infected person.

And according to Angolan tradition, the bodies of the dead are bathed before burial, another high-risk practice.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.