'It is much more frightening ... the spread has begun'

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The Independent Online
KIKWIT, Zaire - When a World Health Organisation team flew into Kikwit yesterday to be met by a Zairean specialist tackling the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, they offered their hands in greeting. Jacques Muyembe offered not his hand, but his elbow. Shaking hands is now thought too dangerous in Kikwit; they touch elbows instead.

At Kikwit general hospital, where medical workers announced yet another Ebola death, the sight of television cameramen vying for pictures of the bereaved was too much for the driver of the press minibus. "If you don't get back in here in five minutes I am driving off. You're going to be dead if you allow these people to touch you," he screamed.

Fear and uncertainty have taken this town in their grip over the past month, since the death of a lab technician at the general hospital marked the start of the Ebola outbreak. The disease has spread to at least two neighbouring towns, forcing the central government to isolate the Bundundu region - the country's breadbasket.

The death toll stands at 48, with 17 people still in hospital with symptoms of the disease, one of the deadliest known, according to WHO. In an effort to track the disease and identify potential new cases, the UN organisation is attempting to trace all those who had contact with victims of the virus. In a country where government control is patchy and corruption is rife, this is a daunting challenge.

Zaire's medical task force is led by Dr Muyembe, who was involved in fighting a 1976 outbreak of Ebola in Yambuku, in the north-east of the country, in which hundreds died.

WHO has been attempting to calm fears by saying the virus is unlikely to spread, but Mr Muyembe said yesterday that he thought the current epidemic was more serious than in 1976. "It is much more frightening, more serious in the sense that [Kikwit] is a town of more than 400,000 people while Yambuku was a village," he said. "The spread has begun."

Scaring science, page 12