The deadly Ebola virus has emerged in another African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing two people in a remote region where many others have fallen sick, the Congo government says.
Congo becomes the fifth African country where Ebola has killed people this year. But so far the Congo outbreak seems to involve a different strain of the virus, unconnected to the outbreak that has killed at least 1,427 people in West Africa, the government says.
Further tests are under way in Congo and could be released on Monday. They could give a clearer picture of whether the Congo deaths have any connection to the outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
The West African outbreak has been raging out of control for months. A British health worker, the first Briton to be confirmed with Ebola, was airlifted from Sierra Leone on Sunday in a specially equipped military airplane to receive medical treatment at a high-level isolation unit in London.
A growing number of African countries are sealing their borders to the Ebola-hit countries and suspending flights and ship traffic to those countries, raising fears of food and fuel shortages as the crisis deepens.
In the northwest of Congo, at least 13 people have died in recent weeks in an outbreak of an unidentified fever with hemorrhagic symptoms in Equateur province, about 1,200 kilometres from the capital, Kinshasa. The Ebola virus was immediately suspected, but until Sunday the presence of the virus had been unconfirmed.
Last week, the World Health Organization insisted the Congo deaths were not caused by Ebola. But on Sunday, a WHO spokesman said the earlier statement was based on “premature information.” Now the global organization says it is waiting for further tests in Congo.
Congo’s health minister, Felix Kabange Numbi, told a press conference on Sunday that a government laboratory has tested eight samples from the fever outbreak. Two of the samples tested positive for Ebola, he said.
The outbreak has been “contained” in an area in Equateur province, he said. Other reports said the government is setting up a quarantine area with tight controls for 100 kilometres around the site of the outbreak.
Congo is located in Central Africa and has no shared borders with any of the four West African countries hit by Ebola this year, so it is unclear how the virus could have been transmitted from West Africa. The government says the samples in Congo suggest the presence of the Sudanese strain of the virus, while the West African outbreak was caused by a different strain, the Zaire strain, the most lethal form of the virus.
One of the two samples in Congo, however, was officially reported to contain a mixture of the Sudanese and Zaire strains – a claim that puzzled many Ebola analysts on Sunday.
Congo was the country where the Ebola virus was first identified in an outbreak near the Ebola River in 1976, when the country was known as Zaire. The latest outbreak this month is the seventh in the country since 1976.
Although rare, it’s not unprecedented to have two unconnected Ebola outbreaks in the same year. In 2012, for example, Ebola outbreaks were reported in both Congo and Uganda, although only about 20 people were killed – far fewer than the current West African outbreak, the biggest in history.
As in West Africa, several of the suspected cases in Congo are among health workers who treated people who may have been carrying the Ebola virus.
Since the West African outbreak began in March, more than 225 health workers have fallen ill from the Ebola virus and nearly 130 have died, according to WHO reports.
On the weekend, the WHO disclosed the first Ebola case among the nearly 400 health workers deployed by the organization and its partners in the Ebola-hit countries. The patient is reported to be a Senegalese health expert who was working in Sierra Leone.
In an earlier case, two U.S. aid workers were flown to Atlanta for treatment after they were infected with Ebola in Liberia. They were given an experimental drug, ZMapp. Both have recovered and were discharged from hospital last week.
There have been widespread concerns that Western patients who catch Ebola are getting better access to treatment than Africans. After the controversy over the treatment of the U.S. cases, the experimental drug was provided to three Ebola patients in Liberia, but supplies of the drug are now exhausted.