Pneumonic plague outbreak at DRC diamond mine, aid workers rush to the scene

Doctors Without Borders has sent two teams to an area in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo where an outbreak of pneumonic plague had been reported, say media reports.

In a statement issued in Nairobi on Tuesday, the organization said an exploratory mission had found 93 cases of the disease in the Dingila health zone, which includes Zonia, Kana and Mambenge, all in northeastern Orientale Province. the Swiss-based aid group Medair and World Health Organization officials have also flown teams into the region.

At least 61 miners in eastern Congo have died and hundreds have become ill from what appears to be the largest outbreak in 80 years of a highly virulent, airborne version of plague, international health officials said.

The officials said thousands more workers had fled an open-pit diamond mine the remote town of Zobia that is the epicenter of the outbreak, possibly spreading the disease deep into a rural province with few health facilities.

The WHO, the Congolese government and several aid agencies are seeking to determine the extent of the epidemic and to train medical workers in the region to spot the disease, which attacks the lungs and is spread mainly by coughing, according to media reports. Left untreated, the disease kills the overwhelming majority of its victims.

What especially alarmed health officials about the outbreak at the diamond mine was their inability to contain it quickly. The first cases apparently occurred in December, in the days after the mine opened following a period of disuse. Because the nearest health facilities were primary-care centers several miles away, each with only a few beds, it took two nearly two months for officials to identify plague as the likely cause of the deadly lung infections among the miners. By then, most of those exposed to the disease had left the area.

The mine in Zobia had reportedly drawn 7,000 workers from throughout the region. An estimated 400 are believed to be sick, and most of the other miners have fled, health officials said. They said Congolese soldiers, who apparently control the mine, remain at the site.

The region has been troubled by years of warfare, fueled in part by the struggle for control of its rich natural resources, including diamonds. The conflict ended officially with a peace deal in 2002, but violence and instability remain common throughout eastern Congo, limiting access by humanitarian groups.

The years of war have left the area among the world’s poorest and least healthy, with unusually high rates of child mortality and frequent deaths from diseases that are preventable and treatable in places with more advanced health systems.