Evidence suggests a mysterious illness that has killed 12 people in Liberia is linked to food or drink poisoning and is not a viral infection, the UN said Friday, while confirming three new cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that as of Wednesday, May 3, the number of patients had risen to 28, with the sickness still unexplained although Ebola and Lassa fever have been ruled out.
Results from ongoing tests at labs in the United States and Europe are still pending, but WHO spokesman Tarik Jaserevic told reporters in Geneva that “the overall risk of spread is low.”
“These findings are indicative of a point source of infection,” he added, explaining that the leading theory being investigated was “food, drink or water poisoning.”
The fact that the cases appeared tied to one funeral further suggested that an isolated case of poisoning was to blame.
Liberia first started registering incidents of the mystery sickness on April 23, triggering memories of the devastating West African Ebola epidemic that began in late 2013.
WHO and medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, have said the warning system put in place in Liberia after the Ebola crisis prompted fast action following the recent deaths.
The unexplained illness was first seen in coastal Sinoe County and has since been registered in the capital, Monrovia. It causes fever, vomiting, headaches and diarrhea.
It may be recalled that 12 people have so far died following the outbreak of the mysterious illness that began in Greenville, Sinoe County, with the illness affecting two of the dead in Monrovia, according to health authorities.
On Friday, May 5, Ministry of Health (MoH) spokesman, Sorbor George, said the illness first registered in Sinoe County was now present in Monrovia.
“The illness has entered the capital. A man came from Sinoe to attend a funeral in Monrovia and he got sick. He showed the same symptoms, later on he died,” George said.
“After he died his girlfriend got sick showing the same symptoms; she died also,” he added.
The Liberian government had given a death toll of nine on Friday, April 28, while the WHO had said 11.
The WHO raised the total number of confirmed cases to 25, from 19 on May 5, and said the “majority” are related to the funeral of a religious leader in Sinoe County. Cases started being registered on April 23.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that the illness is not Ebola, the hemorrhagic fever that killed thousands in a recent West African epidemic, despite some similar symptoms; nor is it Lassa fever, a virus also present in the region.
Mr. Jasarevic said tests were being conducted at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, after previous inconclusive results elsewhere.
“Field investigation teams are collecting data to establish possible association between any food and drinks served during this funeral ceremony to which all of the victims and sick people have been linked,” Jasarevic added.
The illness causes fever, vomiting, headaches and diarrhea, but no definitive link with the deaths has yet been made.
The outbreak has stirred memories of the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa which began in December 2013, with Liberia hit hardest. More than 29,000 are estimated to have been infected, and a third of those died.
Joanne Liu, president of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said the swift reaction to the mysterious outbreak demonstrated a positive change after the horrors of Ebola.
“People are on the starting block now when something happens, at least in terms of confirming, and I think that this sort of reactivity is the legacy of Ebola,” she told AFP.
Liu said the illness “might be food intoxication,” but that more information is needed.