BRAZZAVILLE, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Nearly 50 people have been killed in Congo Republic by a spreading outbreak of suspected Ebola virus thought to be linked to the consumption of infected monkey meat, health authorities said on Wednesday.
The outbreak is the second reported in little over a year in the remote forest region of the central African country.
Passed on by infected body fluids, Ebola kills anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of its victims through massive internal bleeding, depending on the strain. There is no known cure.
Congo's top health official in the fight against Ebola, Joseph Mboussa, said four deaths had been recorded in the Mbomo district and 44 in nearby Kelle, where the outbreak surfaced over the past two weeks.
The affected region is about 700 km (440 miles) from the capital, Brazzaville, and near the border with Gabon.
"The situation is very serious and on Sunday alone eight people died in Kelle," Mboussa told reporters.
"These are cases of haemorrhagic fever, but we are still trying to confirm whether it is indeed Ebola... Suspicions are strong given the number of dead in just a few weeks."
Mboussa said that Ebola virus had been confirmed in tests on the bodies of animals found dead in surrounding forests -- where gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and antelopes starting dying in large numbers late last year.
He suspected that local people had eaten the meat of the dead animals. Bushmeat has been a staple for as long as anyone can remember in central Africa's forests and is also a popular delicacy in its cities.
"You can well try to stop people eating bushmeat, but you have to give people something to replace it," said Mboussa.
To try to stop the highly infectious virus spreading, all the schools and churches in Kelle have been closed and people told to stay at home, but cordoning off the entire region would be difficult given its network of tiny forest trails.
Ebola left at least 73 people dead in Congo and Gabon in an outbreak from October 2001 to February 2002. That epidemic was also linked to the consumption of infected primates.
The disease was named after a river in Congo's neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was discovered in 1976. The worst outbreak was in that country in 1995 when over 250 people died.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a team to northwestern Congo last week to investigate the suspected outbreak.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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