The World Health Organization issued an alert Tuesday urging more doctors to travel to Congo to combat an outbreak of Ebola fever, which kills nearly all of those it infects and has no cure or treatment.
The Congolese government on Tuesday declared a quarantine of the area in southeastern Congo, spokesman Toussaint Tshilobo said. Experts from Medecins Sans Frontieres are already treating patients, but more help was needed.
The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a lab in Gabon confirmed the disease as a hemorrhagic fever, and specifically as Ebola, Health Minister Makwenge Kaput said on national television Monday. He did not provide further details.
According to WHO, five samples have tested positive for Ebola. About 40 more samples are pending.
At least 167 people have died in the affected region over about four months and nearly 400 have fallen ill, said Jean-Constatin Kanow, chief medical inspector for Congo’s Kasai Oriental Province. Kinshasa, the capital, is 430 miles northwest of the area.
Some of the patients have improved after being given antibiotics, which would have no impact on Ebola, WHO experts said. The experts said that led them to suspect that shigella, a diarrhea-like disease, or typhoid has broken out in the same area. Symptoms for the three diseases are similar in early stages.
In the Congolese hospital where patients were being treated — a mud hut with a corrugated roof — patients are not being isolated. That means that patients who have shigella, which is not usually a fatal disease, might be mixed with Ebola patients, putting them at risk at catching the highly fatal fever.
“There’s no way we can be sure at this time how many cases are shigella and how many cases are Ebola,” said Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman.
Kanow said the infections were mostly in two districts — Mweka and Luebo, adding that the majority of the deaths occurred at the beginning of the outbreak.
“The number of sick continues to climb, but the deaths are decreasing because they are being taken care of by medical teams on the ground,” Kanow said.
By the end of August, four villages had been affected and 217 people had come down with the illness, including 103 who died. About 140,000 people live in the Mweka area.
Congo’s last major Ebola outbreak struck in Kikwit in 1995, killing 245 people. Kikwit is about 185 miles from the site of the current outbreak.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. It is not known where the initial infection came from, though medical researchers say it is likely from contact with an infected animal.