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Red Cross Returns to Gabon, Monitors Ebola Epidemic - 2002-01-13

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says a team of international medical experts has returned to a remote area of Gabon affected by the Ebola disease. The experts were forced to withdraw from the northeastern region of Mekambo early last week for security reasons.

Red Cross Spokesman Denis McClean tells VOA that during the team's absence, a number of patients suspected of carrying the deadly virus left the hospital where they had been under close surveillance. He says two of the patients went to the capital, Libreville.

He says some Red Cross volunteers managed to track down the two people who are now under observation in a hospital in Libreville. "One of the main strategies in containing any Ebola epidemic is to limit travel in and out of the affected area," he explained, "and, of course, this is a very unfortunate circumstance. But there is no need for panic at this stage because we do not know for sure that these people actually have contracted Ebola. But, they do need to remain under observation for at least 21 days before we can say that they are definitely not infected."

The 17 international medical experts left Mekambo because of threats from people in the local community. They were upset at efforts by the experts to ban their traditional burial rites.

Ebola is highly contagious and is passed through contact with bodily fluids. The ritual washing of dead bodies infected with Ebola is one way in which the disease is transmitted.

Mr. McClean says Red Cross volunteers who are members of the community and are highly regarded were able to persuade the village elders to welcome back the medical experts. He says they also persuaded them to abandon their burial rites until the epidemic is over. "It was absolutely essential," he added, "that these experts return to the affected area because, of course, the local authorities with the best will in the world and the best expertise that they have available to them would not have been able to monitor the spread of the epidemic in the same way as these international experts."

Before they withdrew, the experts had been monitoring nearly 250 people in Gabon and the neighboring Republic of Congo. These people are suspected of having had contact with Ebola victims. Sixteen people who were at particular risk had been placed in a special isolation unit set up in Mekambo. The World Health Organization says the Ebola outbreak will be considered over after two incubation periods, a total of 42 days, pass without any new cases developing.