updated 4/24/2005 8:17:41 PM ET 2005-04-25T00:17:41

Medical teams trying to stamp out the worst recorded incidence of Marburg virus in Angola are beginning to get the deadly outbreak under control as cooperation from stricken communities improves, the U.N. health agency said Saturday.

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The virus, closely related to the feared Ebola virus, has caused hemorrhagic fever in 266 people and killed 244 of them since March, when the outbreak first came to the attention of health authorities.

As communities begin to understand the dangers of the virus, though, the number of new cases has dropped from an average of 35 per week to 15, according to the World Health Organization.

"This is good news, but it doesn't mean the outbreak is over," said Dr. Fatoumata Diallo, the WHO representative in Angola.

"The chain of transmission is being broken as we speak. However, this is the most critical time now in the response," said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO's top outbreak specialist from the agency's headquarters in Geneva. "Continuing and intensifying the effort is what we need to do now, not relax."

Efforts to educate communities about the disease, which is spread through direct contact with body fluids, and about the need to isolate patients both when they're ill and after death has been paying off, experts said. Medical teams also have tried to encourage cooperation by being more sensitive to villagers' fears about the health measures.

"The community response has improved very very much," said outbreak team leader, Dr. Nestor Ndayimiridje. "Traditional leaders are coming to the office to report suspected cases or dead bodies. It was not like that two weeks ago." Only one community remains hostile, he said.

Earlier in the outbreak, suspicious villagers threw stones at medical teams when they arrived to search for infected people and collect bodies. Families hid sick people and buried the dead secretly in traditional rituals that risked spreading the disease because they involved touching and bathing the corpse.

The experts also have added a more human touch to their actions and interactions with the community, so villagers do not feel the teams have arrived as "sanitary police," said Dr. Pierre Formenty, the WHO's Marburg virus expert.

For example, the medical teams have lowered the plastic sheet fences around isolated wards, "so that people can come and see what we are doing," Formenty said. "For them, the use of plastic is linked to death. If you have plastic around the place to isolate the ward, it shows maybe that you are going to kill them."

Doctors also now refer to the isolation wards as treatment wards and allow one relative, fitted with a bioprotective suit, to visit their sick family members.

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