At least 70 people have died in northern Democratic Republic of Congo from an outbreak of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, the World Health Organization said on Thursday, denying that the illness was Ebola.
A WHO report issued Thursday and seen by Reuters said that 592 people contracted the disease and 70 of them have died. Five health care workers, including one doctor, are among the dead.
"This is not Ebola," a WHO spokesman said in an email to Reuters on Thursday.
A local priest who asked not to be named said that the illness affected several villages and estimated that the death toll was over 100 people.
Kinshasa sent its health minister, Felix Kabange Numbi, and a team of experts to the region on Wednesday after reports of several deaths.
The outbreak began in the remote jungle province of Equateur, where the first case of Ebola was reported in 1976, prompting speculation that it was the same illness that has killed more than 1,350 people in West Africa and continues to spread.
Symptoms of the two diseases are similar, including vomiting, diarrhea and internal bleeding. But the fatality rate for this outbreak of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is much lower than for the West Africa Ebola outbreak — 12 percent versus close to 60 percent.
The WHO, which sent representatives to the area on Wednesday with the Congolese team, said four samples would be flown from the town of Boende on Friday to the capital, Kinshasa, for further testing.
The medical charity Doctors Without Borders said it has also sent a team to Equateur to assess the situation. The group said it was too early to confirm what the disease was.
Congo does not share a border with any of the West African countries affected by Ebola. But the country has seen several outbreaks since the first case was detected near the Ebola River in northern Congo in 1976.