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Pneumonic plague kills 43

KINSHASA, 22 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - Some 43 people have died and 13 others infected following an outbreak of pneumonic plague in the mining area of Zobia, in the region of Bas-Uele in Oriental Province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an official in the Ministry of Health told IRIN on Monday.

The ministry's director of epidemiology, Dr Benoit Kebele Ilunga, said the epidemic showed up three weeks ago in one of the mines in the diamond rich area.

He said the 13 infected survivors had responded well to antibiotics. Samples from the infected people analysed at the Bio Medical Research Institute in the capital, Kinshasa, confirmed the plague.

A medical team comprised of representatives from the NGO Doctors Without Borders, Medair, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health had assessed the situation in the area, Ilunga said.

Another team of experts, made up of specialists from the WHO in Geneva and its African offices, and from the Pasteur Institute in Madagascar, also conducted further studies on Monday at the site of the epidemic.

"The epidemic of pneumonic plague is well confirmed in this area," Dr Jean-Marie Yanehogo, in charge of epidemics at WHO, said. "The World Health Organisation sent a research team to gather all available evidence."

According to the WHO, of three forms of the plague, the pneumonic variety is the most virulent. It is prevalent in the Zobia area because of poor hygiene and rats, which is a vector for the disease. The disease is transmitted from animals and humans by either the bite of infected fleas, direct contact, inhalation and/or, rarely, ingestion of infective bodies. The plague has a case-fatality ratio of 30 to 60 percent, if untreated.

A major challenge for health officials in DRC that remains is how to contain the epidemic.

Kebele said the major difficulty was to find all the people who may have contracted the infection and who may have left the Zobia mine while the disease was still in its incubation period.

"They [people] may develop the disease in another mine, and so, propagate the epidemic," Kebele said.

Some 7,000 miners live in Zobia. Medical officials are now looking for 2,000 of them who worked in Zobia when the epidemic broke out.

The mine was closed in 2004 when several cases of plague were detected. However, the mine was re-opened on 14 December 2004, but only one week later, new cases of the plague re-appeared.

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