Believed to be the source of Ebola, this Kenya cave could be ground zero for the next pandemic

Located in Kenya's Mount Elgon National Park, the Kitum Cave was reportedly the origin point for the Ebola and Marburg viruses, of which the latter has been termed as 'epidemic-prone' by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Last Updated : 23 April 2024, 07:24 IST
Last Updated : 23 April 2024, 07:24 IST

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A picturesque, "must visit" site for tourists in Kenya—the Kitum Cave—has an unsettling history: that of being home to some of the deadliest diseases known to humankind.

Located in Kenya's Mount Elgon National Park, the Kitum Cave was reportedly the origin point for the Ebola and Marburg viruses, of which the latter has been termed as 'epidemic-prone' by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But, how did the Ebola and Marburg viruses find a home in the cave? We take a look.

An unsettling past

According to several reports, when the Kitum Cave was initially discovered, scientists found scratches along its walls, which, at the time, were attributed to ancient Egyptian workers scraping the cave walls in search of valuable minerals and gems.

However, that theory was put to the test in the 1980s, after a French engineer from a nearby sugar factory contracted the Marburg virus in the depths of the cave and succumbed shortly afterwards at a Nairobi hospital.

"Connective tissue in his face is dissolving and his face appears to hang from the underlying bone," noted a book, describing the disturbing symptoms endured by the Frenchman prior to his demise from hemorrhagic or blood-letting fever brought about by the Marburg virus.

But the Frenchman wasn't alone: seven years later, the Kitum Cave took its second victim, this time, a Danish school boy who died of a related hemorrhagic virus.

Following the 1980s incidents, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) launched an expedition to the cave, taking precautions and providing the team with pressurised and filtered suits. However, the expedition did not return conclusive results.

It was only later that scientists realised that the minerals found within the cave played a role in it becoming a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases.

The valuable salty minerals found within the cave, it turns out, attracts megafauna, and researchers say that elephants have repeatedly extended the 600-foot-deep cave, thereby making it a haven for disease-carrying bats.

It's precisely these bats which scientists believe to be carriers of viruses such as Ebola and Marburg.

A concerning future?

Although the Marburg virus was discovered decades back, the WHO, in 2021, warned that it was epidemic-prone, and has since taken action to contain local outbreaks.

Belonging to the same family as the Ebola virus, the Marburg virus is highly virulent and attacks the body's cardiovascular system and inhibits the body's ability to function, leading to death in most cases.

In fact, the Marburg virus has an average fatality rate of 50 per cent, with case fatality rates varying from 24 per cent to a whopping 88 per cent. For comparison, Covid-19 had an average fatality rate of approximately 1 per cent, and left over seven million people dead during the pandemic.

What makes the Marburg virus even deadlier is its high transmission rate. Among humans, it is transmitted via direct contact with bodily fluids of infected people, or with surfaces or objects that come into contact with such fluids, thereby making caring for infected patients a very risky proposition for healthcare workers.

Symptoms are even worse. While incubation takes between two to 21 days, initial symptoms include high fever, severe headaches, muscle pains, diarrhoea, and nausea. Later on, many patients also develop hemorrhagic manifestations that result in some form of bleeding, often from multiple orifices. Deaths, when they happen, are preceded by severe loss of blood from hemorrhages and shock.

That being said, the WHO notes that the alarming fatality rate of the Marburg virus can be tempered through good patient care, although there exist no cures or vaccines for the virus.

Should we be worried?

While the transmission rates and symptoms of the Marburg virus make it an extremely dangerous candidate for an epidemic, the WHO, as of now, categorizes it as a low-level risk at national, sub-regional, regional and international levels.

Published 23 April 2024, 07:24 IST

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