Four relatives of people who have died of the disease in the town of Kikwit, 225 miles to the east, have travelled to the capital where they are being treated for symptoms of the disease, the missionaries reported.
Elizabeth Allford, who works for the Baptist Missionary Society, said the information about the capital's suspected Ebola cases emerged yesterday after discussions she had with members of a co-ordinating committee of Western health agencies and Zairean government officials.
The whereabouts of the four patients are being kept secret in order not to panic Kinshasa's residents, she said. ''Initially we were told the cases had been confirmed but it now appears that the patients are only suspected as having Ebola and are under surveillance.''
The Zairean authorities have made desperate attempts to stop the Ebola virus, which turns internal organs to pulp, from spreading to Kinshasa by setting up roadblocks and imposing a ban on small aircraft flying to the area of the outbreak.
There is confusion about exactly how many people have been infected since the initial outbreak in Kikwit became public earlier this week. Reports on the numbers of deaths range from 29 to nearly 200, although the World Health Organisation said yesterday the true figure is likely to be nearer 50.
Graham Lloyd, an Ebola expert at the Centre for Applied Microbiology Research at Porton Down, near Salisbury, said the current Ebola outbreak was occurring at the same time as an epidemic of dysentery in the area, which results in similar initial symptoms.
He said reports he had received suggested that the virus has also emerged in two other towns some distance from Kikwit, the centre of the original outbreak.
The Zairean government tried to stop the spread of the virus by imposing a quarantine around Kikwit. However, this appears to have failed with cases appearing at Mosango, about 70 miles away, Bonga Yasa, some 155 miles away, and now a suspected outbreak in Kinshasa itself.
The Ebola virus attacks and digests the internal organs of the body, causing bleeding, vomiting and diarrhoea. More virulent strains can kill up to 90 per cent of infected people. Scientists classify it as a category 4 virus, requiring the most stringent safety precautions, because it is so lethal and there is no known cure. It is transmitted by people coming into close contact with infected body fluids.
Ebola takes its name from a river in northern Zaire that was the centre of the first recorded outbreak in 1976, which killed nearly 300 people. A further outbreak in the Sudan in 1979 killed about 200 people. There has been one other unconfirmed report of the virus decimating another village in Sudan.
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