BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo -- Citing a suspected Ebola outbreak, officials Thursday quarantined a central region of the Republic of Congo and appealed for international help.
At least 50 people have died from hemorrhagic fever in Cuvette West, a forested region that is home to 30,000 people. Officials are awaiting lab results to determine if Ebola caused the deaths.
Health Minister Alain Moka appealed for international aid, saying: "The situation in that region is extremely grave."
Moka said 51 people have died. The Geneva-based World Health Organization confirmed 50 deaths. Sixty-one others are ill.
Ebola is one of the world's deadliest viral diseases, causing rapid death through massive blood loss in up to 90 percent of those infected. The disease spreads through bodily fluids. Primates, a food source for many central Africans, can carry the infection.
Officials have prohibited everyone except emergency workers from entering or leaving Cuvette West or moving between its towns, Moka said.
Churches, schools and government offices have been shuttered, and public gatherings banned. Mobile speaker systems were being rushed in to broadcast instructions to people in their homes.
Government and WHO experts have taken blood from victims to determine if the disease is Ebola.
Moka said some villagers terrified by medical experts in gleaming head-to-toe protective suit have scattered into the jungle, complicating quarantine efforts.
"Right now, the teams are having a lot of trouble working with the villagers, who believe the disease is a terrible curse. The population doesn't believe in Ebola," Moka said. "And when they see the men in the white suits, they flee."
WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency was not aware of the quarantine and would advise against it. "Ebola quarantines haven't been found to be effective," he said.
The outbreak is centered in the Cuvette West towns of Mbomo, Kelle and Yembelangoye.
Ebola generally kills rapidly, meaning the disease burns out before it can spread great distances. WHO says more than 1,000 people have died of Ebola since the virus was first identified in 1976.