Ebola attack seemingly over, for now

Although the government has not publicly declared the Ebola haemorrhagic fever over, medical authorities in the Republic of Congo say they have the situation well under control.

They said 10 people died in the April to July outbreak, the fourth since the virus that causes the fever first appeared in the country in November 2001.

It was one of the most dreaded diseases, striking fear in the hearts of many as it ripped through part of the country's human and gorilla populations.

Although confined to Cuvette-Ouest Department, one of the country's 11 administrative zones, the virus remained a constant threat, lurking in the deep recesses of the tropical rainforest that provides it a natural habitat.

Ebola is a formidable foe; one that the World Health Organization (WHO) says kills 50 percent to 90 percent of all clinically ill cases.

The Ministry of Health says the virus entered Cuvette-Ouest through people fleeing the same problem in the Gabonese town of Mekambo and its surrounding area.

At the end of the first outbreak in Cuvette-Ouest in April 2002, Ebola killed 42 of the 57 people who were recorded as having contracted the virus, WHO says. During the second outbreak, in the same area, it killed mostly gorillas in sites close to the Odzala National Park, where there were 128 deaths of the 143 cases recorded. It was during the second outbreak that animals were infected. The national coordinator of Project ECOFAC (The Forest Ecosystems of Central Africa), Jean Pierre Agnangoye, said 600 of the 800 gorillas of the Lossi Sanctuary died of Ebola.

FIGHTING THE DISEASE

Health Ministry officials attribute the low human death toll of the April-June 2005 outbreak to effective public information campaigns on disease prevention, and the training of medical and health professionals.

"They enabled us to control the last epidemic very quickly," Jean-Vivien Mombouli, the technical adviser at the Ministry of Health, said on 11 August.

Since 26 May, there has not been a single recorded death - prompting WHO to declare the disease epidemiologically finished. However, health officials feel that these measures must be followed by others designed to eliminate the threat of resurgence once and for all.

First, foreign scientists say they need to know where the virus hides. Until now, one had suspected gorillas, Dr. Jean-Vivien Mombouli, the technical adviser at the Minister of Health and the Population, said. The bat may be another carrier.

"Bats appear to be suspect number one," he said.

Residents of Cuvette-Ouest who are often in contact with the carcasses of primates in the forest are most exposed to Ebola. Then, person-to-person transmission of the virus goes through direct contact with blood, saliva, urine, vomit, sperm, tears, saddles. Contact with the mattresses and clothing of affected persons is also another method of contracting the virus.

The WHO says the Ebola fever begins to manifest itself in the host two to 21 days after infection. The victim's body temperature shoots up; the person gets headaches; loses appetite; experiences intense fatigue; as well as muscular, articular and stomach pains; vomiting; bleeding from the anus, ear, nose, and eyes.

So far, research into a vaccine against Ebola has yielded little, although Pierre Fromentry, a WHO specialist in hemorrhagic fevers, said initial results were encouraging.

What was needed in the quest to overcome the threat of a spread of the disease was a way to boost epidemiological monitoring systems to spot outbreaks and trigger better preventive and control measures, according to Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, director of WHO Africa region.

"We must also strengthen our preparedness capabilities to face epidemic by better sensitising health personnel," he said.

The government says it is trying to develop new tools to defeat Ebola. In this war, it is putting together a team comprising personnel from the ministries of health; of security and the police; of territorial administration; of forestry and the environment; and of humanitarian action.

It will be the team's task to find a swift and effective response to another Ebola attack.

In this respect, they envisage to set up permanent medical surveillance teams in Cuvette-Ouest and in the regions along the country's borders. Through the media, the government will also increase public awareness of the preventive methods against catching the virus. Meanwhile, the government's waits in hope for a positive outcome of research being undertaken by North American scientists.

[WHO Fact Sheet: Ebola haemorrhagic fever]