LIBREVILLE, Gabon – A World Health Organization team arrived Tuesday in the Central African nation of Gabon to help contain an outbreak of the Ebola virus that has killed at least 11 people.
The five-member team — which includes experts from France and the United States — arrived in the capital, Libreville, in the morning and was expected to travel to the affected region in the remote northeastern province of Ogooue Ivindo, near the border with Republic of Congo.
The team will help local authorities isolate and treat victims, as well as distribute protective equipment like gloves and masks to prevent contact with the bodily fluids of patients, WHO officials said.
Gabon's government first reported it suspected an outbreak last Tuesday, after an unusual number of dead primates were found in the region at the same time that local villagers starting falling ill.
On Sunday, WHO officials confirmed the disease was Ebola, which has similar symptoms to other, less deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
Details of the outbreak remained sketchy Tuesday. All the deaths reported so far appeared to have occurred last week, and the toll could rise as experts get a better idea of the extent of the outbreak.
Provincial health director Dr. Prosper Abessolo-Mengue declined to say how many people were infected, saying tests were still being conducted. While a quarantine has not been imposed on the region, local authorities are monitoring movement to and from the area, he said.
Ogooue Ivindo is one of the most thinly populated regions in Gabon, with isolated, tiny villages surrounded by dense jungle. Ebola last struck the region in 1996-97, killing 45 of the 60 people infected.
"People were very afraid because of what happened in 1997," Abessolo-Mengue said. "But now as we regularly speak to them, and we regularly tell them what we are doing ... the fear has subsided."
The current outbreak has been pinpointed to the villages of Leahonene and Endemba, he said. The dead include 10 members of an extended family and a nurse who treated at least one of them.
This is the first documented outbreak of Ebola since last year, when 224 people — including health workers — died from the virus in Uganda.
Ebola is one of the most virulent viral diseases known to humankind, causing death in 50 to 90 percent of all clinically ill cases. But it usually kills its victims faster than it can spread, burning out before it can reach too far.
While researchers do not know what causes outbreaks, the virus is believed to be carried by some animals and insects. The disease could then make the jump into a human victim, who spreads it in a community.
The virus is passed through contact with bodily fluids, such as mucus, saliva and blood, but is not airborne. It incubates for four to 10 days before flu-like symptoms set in.
Eventually, the virus causes severe internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea. There is no cure, but patients treated early for dehydration have a good chance of survival.
WHO says more than 800 people have died of the disease since the virus was first identified in 1976 in western Sudan and in a nearby region of Zaire, now Congo.