Scientists have found preliminary evidence that the Ebola virus, one of the deadliest infectious agents known, is the cause of a mysterious disease that has broken out in Zaire, officials of the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday night.
The disease has killed at least 59 people in Zaire, and health officials fear that panic may be aggravating the situation there. Perhaps as many as 300 patients, doctors, nurses and other health care workers have fled hospitals in the affected areas, said Dr. Ralph H. Henderson, an assistant director general of WHO, a U.N. agency in Geneva.
It is not known how many of those fleeing may be infected with the virus.
An announcement of the preliminary laboratory findings, which were made at the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, is to be made in Zaire this morning, said Dr. James M. Hughes, an official of the federal agency.
Ebola is one of a family of viruses that cause high fever and severe bleeding, and it is one of the new and emerging infectious agents that leading experts have warned could cause outbreaks unexpectedly anywhere in the world.
The Ebola virus was discovered in Zaire in 1976, where it killed 90 percent of the nearly 600 people who were infected there, and in the Sudan. It caused another outbreak in the Sudan in 1979, again killing 90 percent of the victims. There is no specific treatment or vaccine to prevent it, although general hygienic and medical precautions can help curtail its spread.
Of great concern among experts is that health care systems throughout the world are unprepared to detect such outbreaks, to care for those made ill, or to deal with panic of the sort that seems to have occurred in Zaire.
Concerns about such outbreaks, initially raised by infectious disease experts and public health officials, have been popularized by books that are now on the best-seller list and movies that are among the top box-office attractions.
Some recently discovered viruses, like those that cause Lassa fever and Marburg disease, are believed to have been responsible for the outbreak of disease in Africa for many years.
But the viruses were detected only after infected people were treated in the United States and Germany. The Marburg virus, for example, was discovered among Germans who died after they handled monkeys imported from Africa.
Jet airplanes have increased the threat of spread of such infections because people incubating a deadly virus can travel from an infected area to another area of the world before becoming ill.
Yet for all the concern, there has been little, if any, spread of such diseases in developed countries.