Miners flee into Congo forests to escape plague epidemic

Plague has killed at least 61 people at a diamond mine in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo, and hundreds who fled into the forests to escape the contagion may be infected and dying, the World Health Organisation said yesterday.

Plague has killed at least 61 people at a diamond mine in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo, and hundreds who fled into the forests to escape the contagion may be infected and dying, the World Health Organisation said yesterday.

Eric Bertherat, a doctor for the UN health agency, said the outbreak of pneumonic plague has been building since December around a mine near Zobia, 170 miles north of Kisangani, the capital of the vast Oriental province. Nearly all the 7,000 miners have abandoned the area and sought refuge in the world's second-largest tropical rainforest, all but cut off from the outside world. It has long been both a refuge and a death trap for Congolese running from war, disaster and disease.

Security fears - mainly from bandits and militia leftover from Congo's five-year war - had slowed the international response, Dr Bertherat said.

Dr Bertherat and 10 WHO doctors will arrive in Kisangani on Monday to prepare a journey into the forests. He said doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières were already there, treating the miners they could find.

Unlike the deadly ebola virus, which is also found in the forests of Congo, Dr Bertherat said this outbreak of plague wasn't likely to spread quickly given the remote and isolated terrain. "It's still a large concern," he said, "because these are cases moving elsewhere."

Plague is caused by a bacteria spread mainly by fleas, and causes an infection in the lungs that slowly suffocates its victims. If caught in time, it can be treated with antibiotics.

Bubonic plague is the most common strain, transmitted to humans who touch infected animals or inhale the bacteria in the air. Pneumonic plague - the kind in the current outbreak - is rarer, but also more easily transmitted from person to person through coughing or touch. Dr Bertherat said plague was commonly found in northern Congo, but this large an outbreak was unusual.

The WHO says the incubation time is two to six days: victims develop a fever and cough; breathing becomes difficult as lungs fill with fluid; and death can come in 48 hours.

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