By Antoine Lawson


December 12, 2001

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Reports of dead gorillas and chimpanzees in a central African forest are being investigated for links to an outbreak of the deadly Ebola (news - web sites) virus, health authorities in Gabon said on Wednesday.

Ebola is thought have killed 10 people in the remote Mekambo district in the northwest, and one more is seriously ill. The disease causes up to 90% of its victims to bleed to death in a matter of days and has no known cure or vaccine. Gabon's authorities have put four villages under quarantine and appealed to people in the sparsely populated country of 1.2 million to remain calm.

Research Minister Andre-Dieudonne Bere said in an official statement that the government had been told of ``the discovery in the forest of the corpses of many great apes, gorillas, chimpanzees and so on.'' ``The government has sent a team to carry out investigations with the aim of determining the origin and extent of this epidemic,'' he said.

Blood tests on a human patient confirmed that the disease was indeed Ebola, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said at the weekend. The disease, which is transmitted by contact with body fluids, killed at least 66 people in a 1996 epidemic in a nearby area of Gabon. It was first known to have struck the country in 1994, when it left more than 20 dead.

Where the virus hides in the wild before breaking forth to kill humans and other primates remains a mystery. Searching for the cause of the first outbreak in 1994, investigators were told of the deaths of many apes in the forest nearby, but found none. In the 1996 outbreak, 13 people fell ill after butchering a dead chimpanzee they had found.

A team from the WHO was heading towards Mekambo, 500 km (310 miles) from the capital Libreville, on Wednesday to help contain the epidemic. Early diagnosis is often difficult because victims suffer symptoms similar to flu such as aches and fever, before developing splitting headaches, stomach pains and diarrhoea. Only in the last stages--when the virus eats through the victim's veins and arteries, causing massive internal and external haemorrhaging--is it clear that Ebola has struck.

But epidemics often burn themselves out of victims fairly quickly, and haemorrhagic fevers come well behind malaria, AIDS (news - web sites) and other diseases in keeping life expectancies below 50 years in African countries like Gabon. The virus is named after the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (news - web sites) where Ebola was discovered in 1976, and where a 1995 epidemic in the town of Kikwit was blamed for killing over 250 people.



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