A mysterious lethal virus has broken out in Zaire, killing at least 56 people and prompting government officials to place parts of the country under quarantine, health officials said Tuesday.
The most likely cause is Ebola, one of the world's deadliest viruses, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Ebola, which causes hemorrhaging, fevers and vomiting, kills about 90% of those it infects, and there is no treatment or vaccine.
The State Department issued a statement Monday that the "possible outbreak" occurred in the area around Kikwit, a city in the Bandundu province of Zaire, about 250 miles east of Kinshasa, the capital. The statement warned that anyone planning to visit that area "should consider postponing such travel" until the level of public health risk is better known.
An Associated Press report from Kinshasa put the death toll at 100 and said Kikwit, with a population of 600,000, had been quarantined by the government; soldiers reportedly blocked routes into the city. The report quoted officials at Zaire's Health Ministry who said the outbreak began April 10 when a surgical patient contaminated medical personnel at Kikwit's hospital.
The CDC's Special Pathogens Laboratory in Atlanta on Tuesday received blood and tissue samples drawn from victims of the outbreak. It hopes to provide a definitive identification this morning.
"If it is Ebola, this (disease) is the big one--this is what we're always thinking about when we talk about serious, dangerous disease threats," said Dr. James Le Duc, head of the World Health Organization's special virus group.
Ebola has received a tremendous amount of popular attention lately as the focus of two books, "The Hot Zone" and "The Coming Plague," a motion picture, "Outbreak," and an NBC-TV movie special that aired Monday night, "Virus."
Ebola is generally passed by close contact, such as exchange of bodily fluids or use of improperly disinfected needles or syringes.
Ebola outbreaks in humans have only been known to occur three times before, all in Africa: in Yambuku, Zaire, in 1976, where it killed 274 people, and in Nzara, Sudan, in 1976 and 1979. In those epidemics, mortality rates among the infected villagers and medical personnel ranged from 70% to 95%.