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Health Workers Forced to Halt Monitoring of Deadly Ebola Virus - 2002-01-10

The World Health Organization has said security concerns have forced a team of medical experts to leave a remote town in the West African country of Gabon, where they have been monitoring the deadly ebola virus.

The WHO said there are 34 confirmed cases and that 25 people have died of ebola in Gabon and the neighboring Republic of Congo.

The World Health Organization has said it is concerned by the events that forced the departure of the medical team monitoring an outbreak of the deadly ebola virus in Mekambo in eastern Gabon.

WHO spokesman, Gregory Hartl said it is impossible to monitor or control the spread of the ebola epidemic without the presence of the international medical experts. But, he said they had to leave the infected area because of safety concerns.

"We have had reports of people being verbally attacked and that, secondly, our people did not have access to a lot of areas that they needed access to in order to do their work properly. It was very difficult to move outside of Mekambo itself, to go into the countryside to track contacts, to look at people, to examine them, to make sure that they had or had not developed symptoms of the disease," Mr. Hartl said.

WHO says the team of 17 international medical experts - as well as Gabonese government officials - pulled out of Mekambo on Tuesday. They have temporarily relocated to the provincial capital, Makokou, about 180 kilometers southwest of the town.

WHO spokesman Hartl said it is critical for the experts to resume their work quickly. At the time of their departure, he says 16 people suspected of having ebola were being monitored in an isolation unit in Mekambo. He says no one now knows what has happened to them.

Mr. Hartl says he believes local people attacked the health workers out of ignorance, because they do not know how ebola is transmitted and blame them for the disease.

"Local people will subscribe it to anything and everything in looking for a scapegoat. So, yes, witchcraft has been blamed, outsiders have been blamed, a lot of things have been blamed for it. People want to find a way out of this. They see a lot of their family members or acquaintances dying. They do not understand why," he said.

Before they were forced to withdraw, the medical experts were monitoring more than 230 people in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. These people may have had contact with those infected with the disease.

Mr. Hartl says there is no way to predict whether the ebola virus will spread because no one is present to see what is happening. Ebola is highly contagious and kills most of its victims.