JOHANNESBURG - International medical personnel and supplies are being airlifted to a remote region of central Democratic Republic of Congo to combat what threatens to become the world's most serious outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in years.
Only nine cases of the disease have been confirmed by laboratory tests. But medical authorities suspect the virus has killed 168 people and sickened 375 across a heavily forested region where villages are linked by deeply rutted dirt roads. Health officials say it is possible that new cases will continue to emerge.
"It's a serious outbreak," said Peter Kilmarx, an official with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who toured the area last weekend. "Every day, there is a new town with a reported suspect case."
The epicenter of the outbreak, which is serviced by a single dirt-and-grass airstrip, consists of three towns in Congo's Kasai Occidental Province, but the affected area appears to stretch for more than 100 miles.
Kilmarx, speaking in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, said that one village market he visited had been abandoned.
Efforts to control Ebola depend on identifying and isolating those already infected. There is no cure, and most who contract the virus die. The disease typically produces acute flu-like symptoms, such as high fever, headache, and diarrhea. Hemorrhaging also is common, and bodily fluids containing the virus are the main source of transmission.
"The only thing you can do is isolate the patient and avoid other infections," said Josep Prior, the top official with Doctors Without Borders in Congo, speaking from Kinshasa. "It's quite shocking. It's not easy to endure such a thing."
The international medical aid group has taken the lead in a global response that also includes the World Health Organization and the US team. The groups are assisting Congolese medical authorities in tracking the path of the disease, alerting the public, and caring for the ill.
Doctors Without Borders has converted a mud-walled building with a tin roof into a 15-bed isolation ward. To prevent infection, members of medical teams wear protective suits, surgical masks, gloves, and boots.