Hospitals alert as Ebola fear grips Kinshasa

Health officials in Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, are keeping several patients under surveillance for fear they are infected with the deadly Ebola virus.

Yesterday a British missionary in Kinshasa, Elizabeth Allford, said the patients were in strict isolation and that techniques were being used to prevent the virus infecting staff. The patients were believed to have arrived in Kinshasa from Kikwit, 275 miles to the east, where the outbreak began.

Health authorities said there were two Ebola cases in Kinshasa. Abdou Moudi, representative in Zaire of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said two others were being sought so they could be tested. One was a riverboat captain treated in Kinshasa for bloody diarrhoea and then released. Hospital staff failed to test him for Ebola but later - after hearing reports of its symptoms - suspected he might have the virus. The other suspected case was a nurse in Kinshasa.

The WHO in Geneva, which has been keen to play down the threat, said that the death toll had jumped from 60 to 77.

"WHO experts expect a significant increase in cases during the next two to three weeks among people who are incubating the disease, after having been exposed to it during the care of relatives or neighbours with haemorrhagic fever," it said. "The team is also concerned by the fact that people do not want to go to hospital, knowing that the epidemic started there," it added in a statement. The Ebola virus kills within a week, by massive bleeding and is one of the most deadly viruses known. There is no cure or vaccine.

"Don't touch" posters have appeared in Kinshasa warning of the dangers of handling infected corpses, in a country where washing the dead is a traditional funeral rite.

The posters were part of a range of measures to protect the capital and its 5 million people, said Joachim Kreysler, relief health adviser to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "I think the epidemic is going on. We are still on the ascending wing of the epidemic." If the virus emerged in the capital it could pose problems, given the dilapidated state of hospitals. "It will be extremely difficult to control, given the size of the city."

Scientists and doctors spearheading the fight against the outbreak are confident that basic sanitary precautions, such as protective clothing for medical staff, will enable them to contain the virus.

In Kinshasa, the health ministry ordered foreign journalists and television crews who had visited Kikwit to report to a clinic for 28 days' quarantine.

"I want to point out this is not an arrest. They have to go to the clinic for the next 28 days," Lonyangel Bopenda, secretary-general at the ministry, told a news conference. Asked what Zaire would do if the journalists refused, he said the matter would be handed over to police.

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