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15 Cases of Ebola-Like Virus Discovered in Sudan - 2004-05-21

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are in southern Sudan investigating 15 cases of an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever that has claimed at least four lives. There are fears the disease could spread into neighboring Uganda.

The World Health Organization's representative in Uganda, Dr. Oladapo Walker, told VOA Friday that he fears a disease resembling Ebola, which has been reported in the southern Sudanese town of Yambio, might cross the border into Uganda.

?I am always afraid that any illness can spread, because, you see, there is a lot of disturbance going on in northern Uganda,? he said. ?The borders are not well demarcated. People pass through the bushes. They move from one community to the other. So we're worried.?

WHO experts in hemorrhagic fever arrived in Yambio Wednesday to conduct tests. Dr. Walker said that officials should know by next week exactly what the disease is.

Dr. Walker explained that there are five viral hemorrhagic fevers, two of which are Ebola and yellow fever. He says they all have virtually identical symptoms. The treatments for all five fevers are also similar.

The Ebola virus is spread through contact with infected blood and other bodily fluids. It is believed to be carried by desert rats and primates.

Dr. Walker noted that, on average, nearly half of patients who contract a hemorrhagic fever die of that disease, but for Ebola, he added, the mortality rate can go up to 90 percent.

He said a disease that killed more than 20 people in southern Sudan last year had been identified as yellow fever, but based on descriptions of the current situation in Yambio, as well as the disease patterns, he suspects the new illness might be Ebola.

Many Ugandans are still reeling from an Ebola outbreak that struck Gulu district in northern Uganda near the end of 2000. During the five or so months that it took to wipe out the epidemic, more than 170 people died of the disease.

Uganda's commissioner of health services, Dr. Sam Okware, said that Ugandan health officials are, as he puts it, still suspicious of Ebola and have taken measures to monitor the area.

?We've maintained surveillance all along our border,? he said. ?So, regularly, we go there and take blood samples. We've been taking data. We've been monitoring all our health information management systems.?

Dr. Okware said that the Health Ministry has re-alerted all districts along the Sudanese border this week, asking them to ensure that their laboratories, surveillance and other elements of their disaster management plans are operational.

The United Nations' Dr. Walker added that strategies to prevent viral hemorrhagic fevers from spreading vary. He said there is a vaccination against yellow fever, but in the case of Ebola, the best that can be done is to quarantine the sick and people from the area, avoid coming into contact with bodily fluids and wash one's hands very thoroughly.