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WHO: Medical Experts Remain Shut Out from Ebola-Affected Areas - 2002-01-15

The World Health Organization says it is still not safe for an international team of medical experts to return to the Ebola-affected region of northeastern Gabon. Seventeen experts were forced to withdraw from the remote jungle town of Mekambo last week because of threats from the local community.

A number of conflicting media reports have appeared in recent days regarding the return of the medical experts to Mekambo.

A World Health Organization spokesman, Gregory Hartl, said the team of 17 experts remains in the provincial capital of Makokou, about 100 kilometers southwest of the affected area. He said on two separate occasions during the past week delegations have gone to Mekambo to try to work out the safe return of the experts.

"At the moment, however, no date has been agreed for the return of the international team to Mekambo. We are not in Mekambo. The international team is in Makokou. Of course, the well-being of the community affected by this outbreak is the priority and team members in Makokou and Libreville are working hard to ensure that we can return to the area as soon as it is safe for them to do so," he said.

After the experts left Mekambo, several patients suspected of carrying the Ebola virus reportedly left an isolation unit where they had been held under observation.

Mr. Hartl has denied reports that two of them had gone to the Gabonese capital, Libreville. He said the two people, a mother and child, never left the area. He said the child since has died of what he calls, unknown causes.

Before the experts were forced to leave, WHO had confirmed 34 cases of Ebola, including 25 deaths. But, Mr. Hartl said the WHO no longer has accurate figures.

"We need to get back into Mekambo as soon as possible to do a number of things - to accurately know how big the outbreak is, what has happened, to help these people to trace contacts. All of these things can only be done from Mekambo," he said.

Authorities say local people resent efforts by the international experts to ban their traditional burial rites. Ebola is highly contagious. One way it can be transmitted is through the ritual washing of an infected corpse.

Andre Neacsu is a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He says it is very difficult to persuade the people to end a practice that could kill them.

"It is two worlds apart - one of the local population with their traditions and their culture and the other one of specialists, nationals, internationals who know that they have to contain an extremely deadly virus," he said.

Ebola kills 50 to 90 percent of its victims. Since the deadly disease first was identified in 1976, the WHO estimates more than 1,000 people have died.