By Louis Okamba ~ The Associated Press
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo -- U.N. health officials confirmed Wednesday that a disease outbreak killing scores of people in the Republic of Congo was Ebola and warned that the highly lethal hemorrhagic fever could still be spreading.
"We're not suggesting that this is over or even contained. We're treating it as an active outbreak," said Iain Simpson, a World Health Organization spokesman in Geneva.
So far, 73 people have been infected, of whom 59 have died, according to WHO investigators. Government health officials in the tiny Central African nation report 80 cases with 67 deaths.
The Cuvette West region, where the deaths have occurred, has been quarantined by the government since last week.
Blood samples drawn from victims in the region tested positive for the Ebola virus, said Josef Mboussa, a top official in Republic of Congo's health ministry.
The disease is one of the world's deadliest, causing rapid death through massive blood loss in up to 90 percent of those infected. Ebola spreads through bodily fluids. Primates, hunted by many central Africans for food, can also carry the infection.
"There will probably be more deaths due to the complexity of the disease," said Mboussa.
Mboussa wasn't able to say if medical examiners were registering new infections in the region; the first reports of the illness reached the capital, Brazzaville, over two weeks ago.
Ebola's two- to 21-day incubation period makes it difficult to gauge how quickly the outbreak may still be moving, Simpson said.
The forested Cuvette West region has 30,000 inhabitants spread among provincial towns and small villages. The disease has centered in the villages of Kelle and Mbomo.
Efforts to investigate the outbreak are being stymied. Frantic villagers terrified by Ebola's horrific symptoms have fled from health workers in their head-to-toe protective suits.
Along with medical personnel, anthropologists have been sent to the region to help explain to the disease to people.
"The villagers are very scared; they see people getting sick and dying," said Simpson. "We're trying to get them to understand the situation."
Ebola killed 43 people in Republic of Congo and 53 others in Gabon between October 2001 and February 2002.
WHO says more than 1,000 people have died of Ebola since the virus was first identified in 1976 in western Sudan and in a region of Congo.