Kinshasa fights to keep out killer bug

Kinshasa - The governor of Kinshasa reinforced roadblocks on the main highway from Zaire's Ebola virus zone yesterday and designated hospitals to isolate anyone falling sick, as the deadly disease moved closer to the capital.

Troops detained foreign journalists at Kinshasa airport for more than an hour after they visited the town of Kikwit, which is at the heart of the outbreak. They were allowed to return to their hotels without going into quarantine.

With the death-toll standing at 64 since the virus surfaced in March, Zaire's top virologist said he was confident foreign experts would soon have the epidemic under control. "As of now we have a total 76 cases, of which 64 are confirmed dead," Jean-Jacques Muyembe, of Kinshasa University, said in Kikwit. "Of the deaths, six were between yesterday and today.'' In Geneva, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put the death-toll at 59.

Professor Muyembe said 21 people from around Kikwit, about 250 miles from Kinshasa, were in isolation. Nine had been brought in on Saturday; none had been diagnosed positive.

The virus, for which there is no known vaccine or cure, is spread through close contact with blood or bodily fluids and kills by causing uncontrollable bleeding.

But Professor Muyembe said that he was confident the outbreak would soon be under control: "There is a very strong team working on it." The governor of Bandundu, Payanzo Nsomo, in charge of the province at the heart of the epidemic, said on Saturday that the virus had reached the town of Kenge, less than 125 miles east of Kinshasa and its 5 million people.

The Kinshasa governor, Bernadin Mungul Diaka, who held an emergency meeting with health workers in the capital yesterday, ordered fresh troops to roadblocks some 50 miles down the main A1 highway from the east and to designated isolation hospitals.

"There have been infringements. Soldiers have been taking bribes to let people into the capital." The governor closed the road last week to keep out carriers of the virus. River traffic and aircraft are also being monitored. Mr Mungul said that the colonel in command of the Matete Battalion, widely regarded as the most efficient after President Mobutu Sese Seko's presidential guard, had gone to investigate.

Mr Mungul said at least one firm had requested permission to move out a handful of foreign nationals from the diamond-mining towns of Kahemba and Tembo, near the border with Angola. "I told them the foreigners will go straight into quarantine when they reach Kinshasa and they have agreed." Professor Muyembe said that initially quarantine measures did not work. He told of three people in hospital with the disease who got up and left. "It is now working better."

But for those who have contracted the virus, which kills in up to nine out of 10 cases, it is probably too late. "The symptoms are the same as in the outbreak of 1976 but the present epidemic is more serious because the virus seems more lethal," Professor Muyembe said. WHO says simple sanitary measures such as using gloves and protective clothing in hospitals will contain the outbreak, which has mainly hit health workers.

The WHO said yesterday that the outbreak was caused by exactly the same strain of Ebola virus as in two epidemics in Zaire in the 1970s. A spokesman, Richard Leclair, said the discovery had been made by a WHO-led team in Kikwit. "Hopefully, it will help them track it down more easily. This disease just erupts and then disappears. We've never been able to find the reservoir of the virus."

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