The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is sending an emergency team of health experts to the Democratic Republic of Congo to try to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague.
The center of the outbreak is a diamond mine in a remote area of the Ituri region, in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The World Health Organization says humanitarian access to this region is difficult because of continuing ethnic conflict there.
Dr. Eric Berthelet heads the team of 10 international health experts leaving for the Congo on Saturday. He says WHO was informed of the outbreak 10 days ago, although the disease is believed to have surfaced at the end of December.
Unlike bubonic plague, which is transmitted by the bite of infected fleas from an animal, he says pneumonic plague is very rare. He says this form of the disease is caught by breathing in live bacteria, and can spread through the air from one human to another.
He says 7000 miners were working together in crowded unsanitary conditions. Once people started dying and falling ill, he says, panic set in, and about 4000 of the miners ran away.
"According to our information, 61 deaths were notified and admitted and recorded in the health facilities,” he noted. “It seems that many of the miners who ran away from the mines died in the forest, or along the trail. So, total number of cases is difficult to know, so far. We are just sure of these 61 deaths. Around 300 or 400 suspected cases. It is difficult to be sure all of them are cases of pneumonic plague."
Dr. Berthelet says the miners ran to villages, some as far away as 200 kilometers from the mine, and it is possible some infected people might go as far as the large city of Kissingani.
He says the WHO team of health experts will work with Congo's Ministry of Health and private aid agencies, going from village to village to try to trace those infected and people they have come in contact with.
The World Health Organization says pneumonic plague is more dangerous than bubonic plague, because it can be transmitted from one human to another. The incubation period lasts from two-to-six days, and people can die within 48 hours of contracting the disease. However, WHO says pneumonic plague can be treated with antibiotics, and the spread of the disease can be contained through good public hygiene measures.