Plague kills scores in Democratic Republic of Congo

Sunday, February 20, 2005

An outbreak of pneumonic plague has killed 61 people as of February 15 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The deadly disease has struck in Ituri district, Oriental province, in the northern part of Congo. While 61 deaths have been confirmed, the total number of cases is not known.

Samples have been taken from 40 patients and sent to laboratories in Kinshasa for analysis. So far, all the victims have been suffering from pneumonic plague, with no cases of bubonic plague detected.

All the victims are workers at a diamond mine employing 7,000 people. The mine was re-opened on December 16 last year, and the first cases were reported four days later.

Teams from Médecins sans Frontières, WHO, Medair and the Ministry of Health have gone to the region to assess the situation, while a multi-disciplinary team flew to the area yesterday.

If access is possible, the team will assist in treatment, surveillance, and in the tracing of people who have possibly been exposed to the disease.

Pneumonic plague is a highly infectious disease which has caused many epidemics and pandemics in history. Pneumonic plague differs from bubonic as it specifically infects the lungs.

The infected lungs raise the possibility of person-to-person transmission through respiratory droplets. The incubation period for pneumonic plague is usually between two to four days, but can be as little as a few hours. The initial symptoms of headache, weakness, and coughing with hemoptysis are indistinguishable from other respiratory illnesses. Without diagnosis and treatment the infection can be fatal in one to six days; mortality in untreated cases may be as high as 95%. The disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

It is primarily a disease of rodents. Human infection most often occurs when a person is bitten by a flea that has previously fed on an infected rodent.

Globally, the World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 human cases of plague every year.