With only six new cases of Ebola infection reported in Zaire during the last week, the World Health Organization said Friday the epidemic of the deadly viral disease in the African country was “coming under control.”
“The acute phase of the epidemic is over and transmission now has been greatly reduced, if not completely halted,” WHO said in a news release issued from the headquarters of the U.N. agency in Geneva.
The international team of scientists investigating the epidemic has now identified a total of 160 confirmed or suspected cases, including 121 deaths, that have occurred in Zaire since late December. Of the 160 cases, 138 were in Kikwit, a city of about 600,000 about 300 miles from Kinshasa, the capital. The remaining cases occurred in five other areas near Kikwit in Bandundu province. The victims ranged in age from 3 months to 71 years. Only five were under 16 years old.
The number of cases is smaller than health officials had predicted. Last week, WHO officials warned that the total would rise substantially. They said they suspected that people were incubating the virus and would become ill in a new wave of the epidemic. Some health officials involved in the investigation estimated that the total might reach several hundred cases.
The incubation period ranges from two to 21 days.
Health officials’ worst fears were that the virus would spread from Kikwit to Kinshasa, a city of 6 million, and possibly to other countries. But no such cases have been reported, WHO said.
The international team has included more than 60 scientists, and new members are arriving to replace some who have left, said Valery Abramov, a WHO spokesman. Now that the initial phase of the investigation - finding cases and cleaning the hospitals - has been accomplished, the scientists are aiming to improve the quality of health care in the epidemic area.
The scientists also are beginning studies to learn where the virus resides between epidemics. Ebola is a member of the hemorrhagic fever virus group that produce flu-like symptoms and fever and that kill by causing uncontrollable bleeding throughout the body.
The reservoir for Ebola virus is not known, despite attempts to find it during the two previously known outbreaks, in 1976 and 1979 in Zaire and Sudan.
At this point, the initial case appears to be a forest worker who was infected in late December.