Health authorities in Congo's southern province of Kasai Occidental had reported more than 160 deaths among 352 sick people in the past four months due to a mystery fever. Kasai is east of Kikwit, site of a major Ebola outbreak in the former Zaire in 1995, which killed 250 of 315 sufferers.
Five samples sent to a laboratory in Gabon and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the presence of the Ebola virus, Health Minister Victor Makuenge Kaput said late on Monday.
"Precautions have been taken to prevent the epidemic from spreading," he told state television.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) says it has no details of how many people are affected by the virus. The disease; Ebola hemorrhagic fever, for which there is no treatment, causes bleeding and is fatal in more than 50 to 90 per cent of cases.
WHO has also confirmed that another deadly and highly infectious virus which was at work in the region has now possibly been identified as Shigella. It causes fever, headaches, pains and vomiting. The virus, then unidentified, had prompted a warning by WHO by August end, and it was not clear which one was responsible for a number of deaths in the region.
A WHO spokeswoman was quoted: "This is now to be investigated more intensively to find out whether it is a combination of the two diseases, Ebola and Shigella, and whether one or the other is prevalent, Ebola being the most dangerous".
The WHO on Tuesday activated its Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network, known as GOARN, asking partner health organizations, including the Atlanta-based CDC, to send epidemiologists and other experts.
Currently, priority is given to the identification and isolation of initial victims, and anyone who has been in contact with them as well as assistance in giving a safe burial to the deceased, in order to avoid further spread of the disease.
WHO figures give that there have been 1,200 deaths from Ebola out of 1,850 cases in African countries since 1976, not including these latest ones.Ebola is transmitted by contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons.
Symptoms begin with fever and muscle pain, followed by vomiting, diarrhea and in some cases bleeding from orifices.
The virus's natural reservoir seems to reside in African rain forests and in areas of the Western Pacific, according to the United Nations health agency.