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Medics Struggle to Limit DRC Ebola Outbreak

VOA News - September 21, 2007

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A suspected Ebola death has been reported in another province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, raising fears that the virus may be spreading. But the World Health Organization says that with new mobile laboratories in the country and an effective awareness campaign taking place, isolating Ebola cases should now become easier. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Doctors are currently testing samples from a suspected Ebola victim in East Kasai, a province that neighbors West Kasai, where all previous cases had been identified.

In the past week, a number of suspected cases have also been reported in the capital of West Kasai-outside the outbreak's original rural confines.

"We have about 400 suspected cases, but actually this is a number that is changing everyday," said Christiana Salvi, a spokeswoman for the United Nations World Health Organization, based in Kinshasa..

So far over 170 people have died in the southern province due to strange illness since April, though only nine have been confirmed Ebola cases.

Salvi says there are several diseases ravaging the region simultaneously; including typhoid, which she says has killed five people, and shigella. She says this can make it difficult to identify and isolate the Ebola cases.

"At the beginning that was not very easy for logistic reasons because all the samples had to be sent to external labs, including in Gabon and in Atlanta," she explained.  "But now through these mobile labs, which are being installed in the field we will be able to have a rapid diagnosis. "

She says two high-tech mobile laboratories have been sent from Canada, which means that samples can be tested in two to six hours and Ebola victims can be quickly isolated.

She says a second crucial factor in limiting the spread of the disease is educating the population.

"What is being done is basically to develop messages to the population on how to avoid the risk of transmission, but also on how to recognize cases, to identify suspect cases and to report to the local health authorities," she added.

She says Congo's health ministry, with support from international organizations, has been distributing leaflets and airing radio and television programs about the virus.

But Salvi says health teams are still a long way from bringing the situation under control.

"We will be able to say that this outbreak is controlled when we have all suspect cases tested, when we follow up all their contacts, and when we have all the cases isolated.  And after that we need to check two incubation periods," she noted.

Each incubation period lasts 21 days.

Ebola is a highly infectious disease, which can be spread through direct contact with the blood, body fluids, or body tissue of an infected person.

There is no known cure for the virus, which is fatal in between 50 and 90 percent of cases.

An Ebola outbreak that struck Congo in 1995 left 250 people dead.

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