Health workers launched an emergency operation on Wednesday to fight an outbreak of deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever in southern Congo, airlifting supplies, setting up isolation tents and disinfecting contaminated areas.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) joined local health authorities in a major logistics operation to try to contain the outbreak in Kasai Occidental province of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congo’s government, citing test results from international laboratories, said on Monday at least five cases of Ebola had been confirmed in the province, where authorities have reported more than 160 deaths among 352 sick people over four months.
Several African countries have suffered previous outbreaks of the highly contagious disease, which causes death in 50 to 90 percent of cases and is transmitted by contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons.
No vaccine or treatment exists that can cure Ebola fever.
MSF was reinforcing its health team in the Kasai Occidental village of Kampungu, the epicenter of the latest outbreak, and had flown three metric tons of supplies to the provincial capital Kananga for distribution in the worst-affected areas.
This included tents and plastic sheeting. “We have to build structures to isolate the patients,” said Pascale Zintzen, a spokeswoman for MSF in Kinshasa.
Medicines and water and sanitation materials, such as water tanks and chlorine for disinfectant, were also being sent.
So too were “Ebola Kits” — protective gloves, boots, glasses, masks, uniforms, aprons and hoods — for the medical teams. The disease is so contagious that protective clothing can only be used once and then must be carefully destroyed.
Congolese health authorities imposed a quarantine on the affected region, which includes the towns of Mweka and Luebo.
The remoteness of the affected areas and Congo’s lack of good roads and infrastructure, much of it damaged by years of neglect and a 1998-2003 war, magnified the problems of tackling the outbreak in the former Belgian colony.
“It’s a real logistical challenge,” Zintzen said.
In addition to an MSF medical team which has been in Kampungu since early this month, MSF were sending more doctors, nurses, logisticians, water-and-sanitation specialists, an epidemiologist and an expert in Ebola fever.
Patients presented high fever, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and in a few cases external bleeding. Within two or three days, patients die from dehydration.
Those infected were being isolated while their samples were being tested to confirm Ebola. They were being treated with antibiotics and put on a drip to combat dehydration.
The WHO said it was not clear whether all the deaths had been caused by Ebola and the presence of other diseases such as Shigella dysentery, which is borne by contaminated food or water, was also suspected.
No cases have been reported so far in east Congo, where heavy fighting in recent weeks between government forces and rebels forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
Kasai is east of Kikwit, the site of a major Ebola outbreak in the former Zaire in 1995, which killed 250 among 315 people.