Ebola emerges in the Congo

Scientists suspect a new outbreak, not a spread of the epidemic ravaging West Africa

A new outbreak of Ebola has emerged here in Equateur province. This scene on the Congo River gives an idea of how remote the region is. 

guenterguni / iStockphoto

On Aug. 26, the Democratic Republic of Congo informed the World Health Organization, or WHO, that Ebola hemorrhagic fever has shown up within its borders. So far, 13 people have died. This country, also known as the DRC, is located in central Africa.

Doctors without Borders has confirmed the news. (The medical group’s French name is Médecins sans Frontières). “We received confirmation on Sunday that four of the samples our team took last week have tested positive for Ebola virus,” Jeroen Beijnberger said. He is the group’s medical leader in the DRC.

Doctors without Borders has worked in the DRC for more than 30 years. It is now sending doctors, nurses and other experts “to the epicenter of the outbreak,” the group said in a statement on its website.

A pregnant woman living in Ikanamongo Villlage was the first person to take sick in this new outbreak, according to the WHO. She had butchered a wild animal that her husband had killed for dinner. People in many parts of Africa eat such wild game, known as bush meat. If those animals are infected, the virus can be picked up by touching their blood.

The woman developed a mystery disease and fever. She died at a local clinic on August 11. A doctor, two nurses and two other clinic employees had contact with her body as it was prepared for release. Those workers took sick the next week and have since died.

In all, 24 people became sick with a fever and illness between July 28 and Aug. 18. Of the 11 who have survived, all are now in quarantine, the WHO says. Neither the pregnant woman nor any of her family and friends had traveled to the West African countries currently battling an enormous Ebola epidemic. That’s why the WHO is now reporting that the DRC outbreak appears unrelated to that one in West Africa.

As in the DRC outbreak, health-care workers have been on the front lines of exposure in West Africa. And they have paid a price for their heroic work. More than 240 of them have already developed Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, the WHO announced on Aug. 25. Among the estimated 1,427 people that Ebola killed so far in those four countries, this year, 120 were health-care workers.

Ebola takes its name from where it first showed up in 1976. That was near the Ebola River in what was then Zaire. In 1997, the country changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The new infections showed up in a remote region there known as Equateur province.

Ebola can reside in animals before spilling out into people. That’s why biologists call it a zoonotic disease. Human outbreaks tend to get their start when people interact with infected animals.

Power Words

bush meat   Wild mammals eaten by people, including not only cats, Chinese bamboo rats, squirrels, badgers and civets but also primates, such as monkeys, chimps and gorillas.

Ebola   A family of viruses that cause a deadly disease in people. Most cases occur in Africa and Asia. Its symptoms include headaches, fever, muscle pain and extensive bleeding. The infection spreads from person to person (or animal to some person) through contact with infected body fluids. The disease gets its name from where the infection was first discovered in 1976 — communities near the Ebola River in what was then known as Zaire (and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

epicenter   The underground location along a fault where an earthquake starts, or the precise center of a region where some crisis is underway.

epidemic  A widespread outbreak of an infectious disease that sickens many people in a community at the same time.

gene   (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

hemorrhage   (adjective is hemorrhagic)Related to major or uncontrolled bleeding, often internally.

infection    A disease that can spread from one organism to another.

outbreak  The sudden emergence of disease in a population of people or animals.

quarantine    A temporary restriction on the movement of people (or animals) that are sick — or suspected of being infected — to a small area. The goal is to prevent a spread of their illness. If the illness is life-threatening and an epidemic is underway, police sometimes may be called in to enforce a government-imposed quarantine.

test positive   A term that indicates that some test has confirmed what it was looking for, such as a disease or poison.

virus  Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

World Health Organization  An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.

zoonosis  (plural: zoonoses) Any disease that originates in nonhuman animals and is later contracted by people. Many zoonotic diseases also spread among a host of non-human species. For instance, the type of swine flu that sickened people throughout the world in 2009 also infected marine mammals, including sea otters.

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