Ebola confirmed as cause of outbreak in Republic of Congo; WHO and partners send expert teams

19 February 2003 - GENEVA -- Laboratory tests have confirmed that the Ebola virus is the cause of an outbreak of haemorrhagic fever in the northwest of the Republic of the Congo. As of Tuesday, 18 February, 80 cases have been reported including 64 deaths. Most of the cases -- 72 people reported ill with 59 deaths -- are in the district of Kéllé.
The government of the Republic of Congo, in Brazzaville, has requested assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO). A joint Ministry of Health-WHO assessment team travelled from Brazzaville to the site of the outbreak two weeks ago. WHO is providing further support from WHO headquarters in Geneva and from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which is coordinated by WHO.

Ebola haemorrhagic fever (EHF) is one of the most virulent viral diseases known to humankind, causing death in 50-90% of all clinically ill cases. The Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected persons. In past outbreaks, health workers have become sick after contact with the bodily fluids of patients they were treating. Several experts in clinical case management, epidemiology and social mobilisation from the WHO Global Alert and Response Network have either already arrived in the country or are on their way to the affected area to assist the government in controlling this outbreak.

The case management experts will be assisting health care workers as well as providing training in barrier nursing practices. Extra equipment for barrier nursing -- including masks, gloves, suits and visors -- has been shipped to the country and is being transported to the affected area.

Medical anthropologists will also be arriving with the WHO team. Their job will be to help educate the public in measures they can take to protect themselves from further spread of the disease. These measures will include identifying safe and unsafe burial practices.

The outbreak is the second time Ebola has struck this region in the past 15 months. A previous outbreak, which began in a neighbouring country in December 2001 and then spread into the Republic of the Congo, infected 59 people in Congo, 50 of whom died.

Earlier this month, gorilla deaths were reported north of Mbomo, the second focus of this outbreak. In December, tests done on dead primates found in the area were positive for Ebola.

Since then, health officials have been attempting to obtain blood samples from humans but victims or their survivors have denied requests citing cultural concerns. The current samples were collected from Kelle on 13 February and have all tested positive for the Ebola virus.

For more information contact:

Iain Simpson - Communications Officer
Communicable Diseases Prevention, Control and Eradication
WHO, Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 3215
Mobile phone: +41 79 475 5534