"We are still waiting for lab confirmation, but it looks almost certain that this is an outbreak of Ebola," Iain Simpson, responsible for media relations and communications at the Communicable Diseases Programme of the World Health Organization (WHO), told IRIN from Geneva on Friday. "We are moving forward as though this is confirmed, assembling a team including case management experts and epidemiologists to travel to Congo as soon as practicable."
The epidemic has already caused 51 deaths, Minister of Health and Population, Alain Moka, told a news conference in the capital, Brazzaville, on Thursday.
The districts of Mbomo and Kelle have been the hardest hit. The village of Ebelangoy, where 38 deaths have already been recorded, is nearly deserted, as residents have fled towards Kelle and the surrounding area.
"The conditions are ripe for a rapid, large-scale spread of the disease, and we have the worst to fear," said Moka.
A series of emergency measures has been taken by the government in an effort to contain the situation: health personnel present in affected districts are being increased; mobile radio stations have been dispatched to inform local populations about haemorrhagic fever; government officials and other prominent Congolese personalities have been asked to participate in the public awareness campaign; all schools in the affected zones have been closed; small transistor radios are being distributed to families throughout the region so that people can receive instruction about the epidemic; public gatherings and movement between villages has been prohibited; and 40 million F CFA (US $68,161) has been made available for the deployment of additional medical teams on the ground.
Moka emphasized that additions measures would be taken. "The situation is far from being brought under control, because no one wants to be told that their family or village has been exposed to Ebola," he said.
One WHO staff member in Brazzaville lamented the "terrible fate" that had befallen Mbomo district, which is experiencing its second outbreak of haemorrhagic fever within one year.
He warned of the challenge of working with terrified populations.
"With the refusal of the population to cooperate, it is difficult to carry out our work and achieve good results," he said, recalling that a member of the Ebola investigation mission that was dispatched in June 2002 to the town of Olloba was attacked by frenzied villagers who were suspicious of the health team's presence. It was only after a local Red Cross official intervened that the health worker was spared.
Authorities were first alerted to a possible Ebola outbreak when a clan of gorillas in the region began to die. Tests carried out on the bodies confirmed that the gorillas had died from the Ebola virus, and the disease has now claimed more than 80 percent of the gorilla clan. The current outbreak is believed to have been caused by villagers eating primates that were infected with Ebola.
Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever transmitted through direct contact with body fluids of infected persons or other primates. There is no cure, and between 50 percent and 90 percent of victims die.
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