CONGO: Mobile Ebola labs on the way

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
The Republic of Congo will soon  be  much better placed to fight outbreaks of Ebola thanks to mobile laboratories that can detect the deadly virus in situ within two hours, according to health officials. At present, suspected cases of Ebola are sent to Gabon, South Africa and even France for analysis.
Canada's Ministry of Health is helping to set up the labs, which are being financed by the European Union and the African Development Bank, and should be operational by 2009.
Between 2001 and 2005, Congo had several Ebola outbreaks, which killed more than 60 people, mostly  in the northwestern  Cuvette West  region,  home to the Odzala National Park.
Canadian Health Ministry officials have begun demonstrating the labs and training members of  Congo's  National Laboratory for Public  Health.

Jean-Vivien Mombouli,  the director of research at the laboratory,  said the  labs could also be employed  to detect  other viruses, such as Chikungunya, which has symptoms similar to  dengue  fever; Marburg and  avian  flu.

“We are going to make a lot of progress in the prevention and surveillance of these diseases,” he added. 

Mombouli told IRIN that France had provided financing to survey Ebola-prone areas in the whole country. He  said the  Ebola  outbreak in neighbouring  Democratic Republic of Congo last year had “taught us many lessons, we should not let our guard down”.

Eric Stephane Makosso, an  epidemiologist based at one of the largest hospitals in Ponte Noire, a commercial city 510km from Brazzaville,  told IRIN there was a permanent risk of an Ebola outbreak in Congo, especially in  fauna-rich  forested areas.

"In the Pointe-Noire region we have the Tchimpounga Park. This could also be a reservoir for Ebola because of the gorillas and other primates," he said.

Many people who catch Ebola do so after eating or handling dead animals they find in the forest. Early symptoms include vomiting and a severe fever. As the disease takes over the body, it liquefies internal organs and causes haemorrhaging from multiple orifices. Depending on the strain of the virus, Ebola is fatal in up to 90 percent of cases. There is no cure or vaccine, so containment and early detection are crucial to minimising casualties.