Republic of Congo said on Thursday eight people had died over the past two weeks with symptoms similar to those suffered by victims of the Ebola virus, raising fears of a new outbreak of the disease.
Health Minister Alphonse Gando said people should not panic but should avoid contact with suspected patients and dead bush animals, which are thought to transmit the virus to humans.
“Since April 27, the health district of Etoumbi, in the Cuvette-Ouest region, has recorded seven deaths and three patients with clinical symptoms that make the Ebola virus a strong suspect as the cause of the deaths and the illness,” Gando said in a statement.
He said another person who left Etoumbi to go to Mbomo had also died after showing the same symptoms. Etoumbi and Mbomo are respectively 640 km (400 miles) and 700 km (435 miles) north of the capital Brazzaville.
There is no known cure for Ebola, which is passed on by infected body fluids and kills between 50 and 90 percent of victims, depending on the strain.
The disease damages blood vessels and can cause bleeding, diarrhoea and shock. Its worst outbreak, in 1995, killed more than 250 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Gando said the government had rushed a team of experts to the area with the help of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and was waiting for the results of laboratory tests to determine whether this was a new Ebola outbreak.
In Geneva, WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said on Wednesday that the results should be available early next week.
Nearly 150 people died of Ebola in 2003 during the last pandemic in Congo’s Cuvette-Ouest region. Neighbouring Gabon also had outbreaks in 2001 and 2002.
Scientists think past outbreaks in the area were caused by the consumption of infected monkey meat. Bushmeat is a staple among forest communities in West and Central Africa and a delicacy in many cities.
“People must absolutely avoid all contact with patients, even if they are relatives, and above all not touch dead animals in the forest. This is really important as the virus is very dangerous and contagious,” Gando told Reuters.
An outbreak in Angola of the Marburg virus, a close relative to Ebola, has killed 277 people, the World Health Organisation said last week.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD