UN health agency says Ebola toll at 31 in Congo

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The death toll from an outbreak of the Ebola virus in northeastern Congo has more than doubled to 31 over the past week, while 38 other people are either suspected of having the disease or are definitely infected, the U.N. health agency said Friday. Aid workers fear that the disease may be spreading in part due to traditional funeral practices in the region.

The Ebola virus has no cure and is deadly in 40 percent to 90 percent of cases. The disease causes severe internal bleeding and can be spread by close person-to-person contact.

Fadela Chaib, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based World Health Organization, said the latest outbreak in Congo was unusual in that the first person known to be infected was a health worker, and officials suspect that the worker might have picked it up from a patient. Health authorities are trying to find that "index case" — the primary case of infection in the general population — and trace that person's ensuing contacts.

Normally, someone seeking care from a health facility would have been reported first, and that has mostly been the case in the eight previous Ebola epidemics in Congo since the first discovery of the virus in 1976. This is the first Ebola outbreak in the Haut-Uele territory in northeastern Congo.

"The situation is serious," Chaib told reporters.

Among the 69 cases overall, there are 41 "probable and confirmed cases" and 28 suspected cases, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. "The rule is that many of the suspected cases are later discarded," he added.

Authorities said last week that 15 people had died in northeastern Congo, where the tradition of washing and displaying of corpses before funerals can spread the epidemic. The tradition is intended to show love and respect for the deceased, but the practice also brings people into close contact with victims of the deadly virus.

Doctors Without Borders, along with WHO and Congo's health ministry, has been conducting education campaigns in the area to warn people of the risks linked to this practice.

The medical workers' aid group also is managing two quarantine centers in the municipalities of Isiro and Viadana, and the U.N. has called for the creation of a $2 million fund to fight the epidemic in Congo.