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WHO Confirms Outbreak of Ebola in Congo - 2003-02-19

The World Health Organization says laboratory tests confirm an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in a northwestern area of the Republic of Congo. Latest WHO figures show 73 cases of Ebola, that have killed 59 people.

With this confirmation, the Congolese government has officially declared an epidemic of Ebola in the remote northwest part of the country. It also has requested assistance from the World Health Organization in controlling the outbreak.

WHO spokesman Iain Simpson says experts from the Congolese Ministry of Health and various teams of international specialists in Ebola are in the field and more are on the way. He says the teams include anthropologists who can help communicate with the local population and ease their fears. "The local population is very scared and is finding it very difficult to come to terms with what is happening," he said. "These are people who live a fairly basic life in villages close to the edge of the forest in this country. These are people who do not have access to the kind of information that you or I have access to. They see their families and neighbors dying from a disease that they do not understand. They look for explanations and they do not really find them. So, these really are people who are very scared about what is happening to them."

The Ebola outbreak is located in the districts of Mbomo and Kelle, in Cuvette Ouest region, near the border with Gabon. This remote, forested area is the same one that was hit by an outbreak of the same virus in October 2001.

That epidemic lasted five months, killing 43 people in the Congo and 53 others in neighboring Gabon.

The Congolese government has quarantined the affected area. But the WHO's Iain Simpson says putting people into quarantine is less important than trying to protect them from getting the infection in the first place. "The other thing is to isolate the people who are sick," he said. "Ebola spreads through contact with the blood and other body fluids of infected people. So the most important thing is to get the people who are sick into an isolated hospital and clinic environment where they can be looked after, and their families and their friends can be protected from contact with them."

Ebola is highly contagious. Mr. Simpson says it is crucial that nurses, doctors and other people who care for its victims do not get the disease. To prevent this from happening, he says, WHO has sent protective masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment to the affected area.