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Last Updated

18 Dec 2001

Source: Reuters News Service, December 17, 2001.

Medics Hunt for Ebola Virus Contacts in Gabon

By Antoine Lawson

MEKAMBO, Gabon (Reuters) - An international medical team battled on Sunday to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus from a remote corner of central Africa, trying to track anyone who had contact with the victims.

Doctors said the death toll from the Ebola outbreak in the thickly forested area around Mekambo in northern Gabon had risen to 12 among the 15 suspected cases. The virus causes up to 90% of patients to bleed to death within days, and there is no cure or vaccine.

Two of the cases have been confirmed as Ebola through blood tests, but doctors said the rest almost certainly were too.

"The joint Gabonese-international team is at the outbreak site and is actively tracing suspected cases and contacts,'' according to a statement from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has sent medics to help contain the outbreak.

"The team is establishing an isolation unit and carrying out education in the local communities aimed at preventing exposure,'' the WHO said.

Four villages in Gabon have been put under quarantine, but health workers said they had not been able to stop the comings and goings of local villagers, increasing the risk the virus would spread to other areas and even to neighbouring countries.

The hunt was on for an infected woman who is believed to have crossed to the Congo Republic, which borders Gabon to the south and east. Ebola killed at least 66 people in a 1996 outbreak in a nearby area of Gabon. It was first known to have struck in the country in 1994, when it left more than 20 dead.

The disease is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was discovered in 1976, and where a 1995 epidemic killed more than 250 people.

For villagers around Mekambo, the message was they should avoid all contact with the bodily fluids -- including the sweat -- of anyone sick with the disease.

"It is difficult to ask too much of villagers, many of whom are illiterate, and who traditionally help their sick and transport the bodies of the dead,'' said WHO doctor Victor Obiang. Early diagnosis is difficult because victims suffer symptoms similar to flu. The virus only becomes apparent in the last stages, when it eats through the veins and arteries, causing massive bleeding.

A candidate in recent parliamentary elections at the village of Ntolo, 60 km (40 miles) from Mekambo, said for once he was thankful for the lack of development in the neglected region of the country of 1.2 million people.

"Rain and the poor infrastructure limit the degree to which people can move about,'' he said. "Thankfully, there was never enough money to extend the railway to Mekambo because that would have easily helped village people to move to populated areas.''