Winnipeg scientists called on to assist with Congo's Ebola outbreak

Three scientists based at Winnipeg's federal virology lab are headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist in controlling an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Three scientists based at Winnipeg's federal virology lab are headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist in controlling an outbreakofthe deadly Ebola virus.

Since June, nearly 400 people have become sick and 166have died inCongo's remote Kasai province, officials with the World Health Organization have confirmed. However, the number of deaths directly related to the virus is unclear.

Doctors Heinz Feldmann, Gary Kobinger and Allen Grolla left Winnipeg on Monday for the region, taking with them a portable laboratory to test for various diseases and viruses, including Ebola.

The lab, which officials described as one of the smallest in the world, resembles a Plexiglas box with attached rubber gloves and a laptop computer.

"Our capability is lighter and has a very, very small footprint, and it also has a broader number of tests that we can do, which is why we're required there," said Dr. Frank Plummer, directorof the National Microbiology Laboratory, part of the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg.

Feldmann added: "We can set this up within less than two hours upon arrival and we can pack it together within about the same time frame, plus some time for disinfection methods."

Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, orthrough contact withobjects that have been contaminatedby infected secretions.

There is no cure for the highly contagious disease, which has a fatality rate as high as 90 per cent, depending on the strain.

The Winnipeg scientists deal with similarly deadly viruses on a daily basis and are not concerned about becoming infected, Feldmann said. They will protect themselves with gloves, goggles, aprons and face masks, he said.

The scientific team will test for a variety of diseases and viruses, Plummer said. Some of the patients have improved after being given antibiotics — which would have no impact on Ebola — leading WHO experts to believe other diseases may be responsible for some patients' symptoms.

Congo's last major Ebola outbreak struck in Kikwit, about 300 kilometres from the site of the current outbreak, in 1995, killing 245 people.

This is not the first time a team from theWinnipeg virology lab has been dispatched to remote areas to test for deadly diseases. Because of its experience andits special laboratory, the virology lab's team is one of an elite number called upon by theWHO to deal with such issues, Plummer said.

The team, whose mission is being funded by the WHO,hopes to be in place and begin testing by the weekend.