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Ebola Deaths Spreading in Gabon - 2002-02-21

The World Health Organization, WHO, says 54 people have died of the Ebola virus in the Central African countries of Gabon and the Republic of Congo over the last two months.

The World Health Organization says most of the Ebola deaths have occurred in a remote area of Gabon, close to the Congo. It is in this area that the outbreak was first discovered in late November. WHO officials believe the disease was spread from Gabon to the Congo by people who moved back and forth across the border. Although the number of deaths keeps increasing, WHO Spokesman Ian Simpson says the health agency believes the virus is being contained.

"The number of new cases is tailing off, the number of new cases discovered is not rising at the moment. And, unfortunately, there are new cases appearing, but singly. When we say that it is contained, it does not necessarily mean there will not be any more cases. It does not necessarily mean there will not be any more deaths. What it means is that we think we know who the people are who have been in contact with the infected people," he said.

WHO officials say there are an additional 15 confirmed cases of Ebola and more than 200 people reportedly are being monitored. Mr. Simpson says anyone who becomes sick will receive medical treatment.

Ebola is highly contagious and kills most of its victims. It is spread through bodily fluids. There is no vaccine or known cure, but those who are treated early have the best chance of survival.

In mid-January, an international team of medical experts left the town of Mekambo in Gabon after receiving threats from the local community. The experts had been trying to persuade local villagers to change their burial customs, which include washing the bodies of the dead. The team said these practices could play a role in transmitting the disease. Mr. Simpson says the medical team has not yet returned because local authorities still have not been able to guarantee its safety. He says the absence of the experts complicates the effort to contain the disease.

"It means that rather than having the international team directly there on the ground, we are giving advice, giving assistance to the local health authorities. Now, that is part of our role. But, usually in an outbreak situations, the international team actually likes to be where the outbreak is taking place so that people can be directly monitored, the cases can be directly followed up. This is currently being done indirectly. It is being done perfectly well by the Gabonese authorities. It is just not being done by the international team," Mr. Simpson said.

The World Health Organization will declare the Ebola epidemic over when two incubation periods of 21 days each pass without a new case of the disease. This is the third known outbreak of Ebola in Gabon since 1994.