From April to September 2007, the largest outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever since 2003 unfolded in the Kasaï Occidental province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. When the outbreak first came to international attention, authorities thought it was one of the largest ever, with approximately 400 suspected cases and more than 170 deaths. As the circumstances surrounding the outbreak came into better focus, those numbers came down. On October 3, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported around 25 confirmed cases, although not every potential contact had yet been screened for the virus.
Researchers aren’t sure where the outbreak originated or how it spread, but Ebola is usually caused by contact with a person or animal harboring the Ebola virus. Funeral traditions in the Congo, which often involve touching and washing the body, can help transmit the virus.
Unlike other outbreaks, which have occurred in city hospitals, the recent cases have been confined to more remote villages. “We haven’t detected one like this in a setting like this before,” says Armand Sprecher, a public health specialist with Doctors Without Borders.
Concurrent infections of typhoid and Shigella dysentery have complicated tracking the outbreak, according to Pierre Rollin, a virologist with the Centers for Disease Control, which responded to the outbreak, along with the local ministry of health, the WHO, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and Doctors Without Borders. Outbreaks like this may happen more frequently than we think, Rollin says, but go undocumented because they occur in very rural areas.
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