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The government of South Sudan and international scientists say they are trying to reach a remote village in the under-developed Western Bahr al-Ghazal region to investigate reports of a possible Ebola outbreak. There are reports at least four people have died and several others are showing symptoms of some type of viral hemorrhagic fever.
According to the World Health Organization's Global Alert and Response Department in Geneva, the department began receiving reports of an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever in South Sudan late last month.
At the time, the State Ministry of Health said that six soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army stationed around the village of Kitkit in Western Bahr al-Ghazal region were found bleeding from the nose and vomiting blood. Villagers said four other people had died from the mysterious illness.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army told Reuters news agency that at least 20 soldiers and three of their wives in Bahr al-Ghazal had died of a disease suspected to be Ebola. The spokesman said he feared that a large number of the population may also be infected.
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Global Alert and Response Department's leading Ebola scientist, Dr. Pierre Formenty, tells VOA that even though the symptoms may appear to be that of Ebola, scientists will not be able to determine which hemmorhagic virus is causing the disease until they can investigate suspected cases in Kitkit.
Dr. Formenty says there are several types of viruses that cause similar symptoms - high fever and bleeding from openings in the body. Some viruses cause relatively mild illnesses, while others such as Ebola and Marburg, often kill their host.
"From the information we have, and we really have limited information, we cannot rule out a long list of possible diseases," said Dr. formenty. "We really need to investigate in Kitkit. But the problem we have at this moment is that there has been a lot of rain in this area. The roads are very, very bad. And we need a helicopter to reach Kitkit and investigate all these rumors."
The last Ebola outbreak in southern Sudan occurred in 2004. The disease, one of the most feared in the world, killed seven people and infected 17 others before it was contained more than a month later.
The first Ebola outbreak occurred in 1976 in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs, or bodily fluids of infected people. The Zaire strain of Ebola is the most lethal with mortality rates of 90 percent or more. The Sudan strain of the Ebola virus causes death in 50 to 90 percent of all clinically ill cases.
Meanwhile, U.N. agencies and Sudan's Unity government in Khartoum are expected to begin vaccinating 8.5 million children against polio later this month. 40 cases of the debilitating disease were reported this year in South Sudan, triggering concerns that the virus could spread into neighboring countries.
Sudan was polio free until 2004, when an outbreak in the north spread worldwide. It was brought under control two years later, but not before it caused 1,200 new cases.