Medical personnel transport a person who died from the Ebola in Liberia. Picture: REUTERS/SAMARITAN'S PURSE
Medical personnel transport a person who died from the Ebola in Liberia. Picture: REUTERS/SAMARITAN'S PURSE

Kinshasa — Cases of hemorrhagic fever were reported in an area of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hit by an Ebola epidemic as far back as December. The first deaths were reported in January, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in the capital, Kinshasa, on Thursday.

The health ministry said on Tuesday that at least 17 people had died in an area of northwestern DRC where health officials have now confirmed an outbreak of Ebola, but did not give a time frame. Two cases have been confirmed as Ebola by a laboratory in Kinshasa.

A period as long as five months since the first infection would be alarming, since it gave the virus a head start in infecting lots of people before action was taken to contain it.

This is the ninth time Ebola has been recorded in the vast, forested central African nation since it was first identified near the eastern Ebola river in the 1970s. It comes less than a year after an outbreak killed eight people in the DRC’s remote northeastern forests.

"According to our early information, the cases have been reported since December and the first deaths were reported in January, but the link between the deaths and the epidemic has not yet been established," WHO spokesman for the DRC Eugene Kabambi said.

The health ministry said on Thursday it had sent a team of 12 experts to the area to try to trace new contacts of the disease, identify the epicentre and all affected villages and provide resources. The epidemic so far appears to be centred on the village of Ikoko Impenge, near the town of Bikoro, where local health officials reported 21 patients showing signs of hemorrhagic fever, all but four of whom had died.

"This advance team brought the first batches of equipment, mostly containing rapid diagnostic tests for the Ebola virus and laser thermometers," the health ministry statement said.

It said that they had already arrived in the regional capital Mbandaka, about 150km away from the affected area.

Ebola is best known and most feared for the internal and external bleeding it can cause in its victims, owing to damage to blood vessels.

Victims often die of shock, but symptoms can be vague, including fever, diarrhoea and nausea. The worst Ebola epidemic in history ended in West Africa just two years ago after killing more than 11,300 people.

The DRC’s long experience of the disease and its vast, remote geography mean outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate.