October 6, 2008 / 10:31 AM / 11 years ago

No need for panic over killer illness: S. Africa

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African health officials said on Monday they were closely monitoring an unknown disease similar to hemorrhagic fever that has killed three people, but called on the public not to panic.

Melinda Pelser, spokeswoman at Johannesburg’s Morningside Clinic, which treated the three patients, said the disease causes external and internal bleeding and was spread through bodily fluids. But there were no signs it was airborne.

Tests were being carried out on the body of a Morningside hospital cleaner, to see if the death was linked to the disease.

South Africa’s Health Department, which issued an alert over the weekend, said: “Blood samples of three of the cases are negative for any particular disease, including Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers.”

“At this stage the Department cannot confirm speculations linking these deaths to Ebola or any of the other viral hemorrhagic fevers,” it said in a statement.

“The Department of Health would like to call on South Africans not to panic,” it said.

Dr Frew Benson, the department’s director of communicable diseases, told Talk Radio 702: “Our one concern is that we don’t know what we’re dealing with...the fact that we don’t know what the disease is, is a matter of concern for us.”

There are several strains of hemorrhagic fever, including Ebola and Marburg, which have killed hundreds of people in outbreaks in Africa. The diseases cause bleeding from multiple sites and can have very high death rates.

“Healthcare workers are monitoring all individuals who have been in close personal contact with the cases and are in particular looking for flu-like symptoms and raised temperatures (above 38 degree Celsius),” the Health Department said.

The first death was a Zambian woman flown to South Africa for treatment. A paramedic who accompanied her later died, health authorities said.

Ebola is rare, but there is no known cure and the virus usually kills between 50 and 90 percent of its victims.

It is spread through contact with bodily fluids of a patient. As with other hemorrhagic fevers, patients die from dehydration, bleeding, and shock.

The latest outbreak, which ended in February in Uganda, was unusually mild, killing 37 people out of 149 infected.

A previous outbreak in Uganda in 2000 killed more than half of 425 people infected and a 2007 outbreak in neighboring Congo infected 264 people, killing 187.

Marburg has similar characteristics. At least 150 people died in an epidemic in Angola in 2004 and 2005.

Additional reporting by Muchena Zigomo; Editing by Barry Moody

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