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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 18:12 GMT
Ebola outbreak 'may spread' in Congo
Spraying a hospital in Gabon
Ebola is highly contagious and deadly

Thirty-eight people have died in a suspected outbreak of the Ebola virus in the north of Congo-Brazzaville, near the border with Gabon.

The Congolese authorities say they are concerned that the virus might spread.

Ebola is spread through contact with small amounts of body fluids.

Little more is known about the virus, which causes its victims to die from internal bleeding.

Bush meat

The Congolese health ministry says the people died in the villages of Kelle and Mbou, about 800 kilometres north of Brazzaville, in the region known as Cuvette West.

The authorities were first alerted to a possible outbreak of Ebola when a clan of gorillas in the region began to die in December.

Tests carried out on the bodies confirmed that the gorillas had died from the Ebola virus, which has now claimed more than 80% of that gorilla clan.

Gorilla
Doctors say the virus can spread through infected bush meat

For the authorities, the Ebola virus is the stuff of nightmares.

Spread almost as easily as the flu but far more deadly, Ebola can result in the death of 95% of its victims.

The Congolese practice of washing the body before burial is just one of the factors that makes the virus so difficult to contain.

The health ministry suspects that the current outbreak was caused by villagers eating primates in the area who were already infected with Ebola.

Hostile

But confirmation that the virus is responsible for the recent human deaths has not yet been possible.

This is because local inhabitants are refusing to co-operate with teams of health ministry workers and World Health Organisation specialists who have gone to the region to study and contain the outbreak.

The villagers of Kelle and Mbou have so far refused to give blood samples needed to test for the virus, and have become hostile towards the visiting medical teams.

Nurse tends to Ebola victim in Uganda
Medical professionals are at great risk of contracting Ebola

They claim it is the medical workers who bring the virus to the region.

The local inhabitants, who are mostly Pygmies, were badly mistreated by Gabonese troops who came to the area to contain an Ebola outbreak in 1996 and 97.

And this may be the reason why the local population is fearful.

Since an outbreak in the same area in June last year, the Congolese ministries of forestry and the environment have had teams of workers in the region trying to raise the awareness of the local population to the dangers of eating gorillas and chimps, particularly those which they find already ill or dead.

But they admit it is an uphill struggle in a region where bush meat has been a staple part of the local diet for centuries.

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See also:

08 Feb 03 | Medical notes
05 Feb 03 | Africa
18 Dec 02 | Health
16 Jan 02 | Africa
18 Oct 00 | Health
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