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New cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are raising fears that the virus will spread further across Africa. Yet the variety found in Central Africa might be of a different kind.
The Ebola River is a small stream running through the forests of the Equateur province in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is in this region that the deadly disease was first recognized by Belgian scientists, who named the worm-looking virus after the river in 1976. Now, the virus has once again returned to the Equateur province with two confirmed cases of people who died from Ebola.
"In this region especially, the Ebola virus is circulating and has caused some smaller and larger outbreaks in the past", says Dr. Schmidt-Chanasit, head of the viral diagnostic unit at Hamburg's Bernhard-Nocht-Institute. "So this outbreak, most probably, is not associated with the outbreak in West Africa."
Almost 1,500 people have died so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria in what has become the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history. Yet the virus that has now caused an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo differs substantially from the one in Western Africa.
"Case fatality rate is much lower when we compare this to West Africa - it's around 20 percent," says Schmidt-Chansit. "So it might be possible that this is a different strain of the Ebola virus that is less pathogenic."
Some Ebola strains are even harmless for humans and will only cause disease in monkeys. The so-called Reston virus is such a mutation of Ebola. It has been found in China and the Philippines. The current strain that is wreaking havoc across West Africa, on the other hand, has a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent.
Confidence in Kinshasa
It might take another one or two days until laboratories have identified the exact strain of the virus that caused the two deaths in the Equateur province in northern Congo. The newest outbreak of Ebola would be the seventh recorded so far for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is the country's history of Ebola outbreaks that makes Felix Kabange Numbi, health minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, confident.
"The experience we have gathered during the last six Ebola outbreaks will be helping us contain this disease now," he said in a televised speech on Sunday.
Numbi announced a multitude of measures to counter the outbreak, listing protective equipment for all medical personnel as a top priority. Moreover, he said his government would make sure "all burials are securely done for those confirmed cases, but also those unexplained deaths in the communities."
Experts needed at home
A country plagued by ongoing armed conflicts and a continual fight over natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo might be a place where one would suspect the disease to spread quickly - ever more so since it is a country the size of Western Europe with little developed infrastructure, be it roads of hospitals.
Yet this might not be fueling the disease, says Schmidt-Chanasit. Authorities have already imposed quarantine around the affected area in Jera in the Équateur province. "They are very well prepared. They know how to isolate the patients."
He adds that the outbreak occurred in a remote region, "So there is no chance that this outbreak will come into a capital like Kinshasa, because it is hundreds of kilometers away."
Just last week, Health Minister Numbi announced plans to send experts from Kinshasa to West Africa in order to help quell the Ebola epidemic there.
Now, it looks as if the Democratic Republic of the Congo will first have to deal with its own outbreak of the disease.