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Travelers in Kenya Valley Cautioned

January 17, 1998

GARISSA, Kenya (AP) _ Dr. Saeed Abdalla was worried. In less than an hour, she had examined three people who showed symptoms of what appeared to be Rift Valley fever _ which has no cure and is creeping toward heavily populated regions of Kenya.

As Abdalla examined Ebla Hussein, the 40-year-old woman writhed in pain with a high fever. Relatives said she had been vomiting and her stool contained blood.

``This is the first time we have found cases so close to each other, and it is not a good sign,″ said Abdalla, a Red Cross doctor. ``I fear the outbreak is worse than we think.″

The Ministry of Health has confirmed more than 350 deaths since the fever initially known as ``the mystery disease″ broke out late last year. But the World Health Organization believes the actual figure may be double that, and said Saturday that the disease has spread from northeastern Kenya to coastal, eastern and central provinces.

The agency has warned visitors to protect themselves from the mosquitoes that ferry the fever-causing virus from infected animals to humans. Once infected, people have suffered symptoms including pain, fever and bleeding from the nose and gums, and have usually died within a week, she said.

An outbreak on the Indian Ocean coast could wreak havoc with Kenya’s vital tourism industry, which is still reeling from negative publicity after politically inspired violence in August.

Those who slaughter animals are susceptible to the virus, as are those who eat tainted meat, Abdalla said. Red Cross spokesman Simon Kioi said 16,000 goats thought to have been infected have died since the outbreak.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of infection through human contact, Abdalla said.

The fever takes its name from the geological fault that runs north and south from Jordan to Mozambique. Fatalities can be high. A severe outbreak in Egypt in 1977-78 killed about 600 people.

Abdalla was among the first doctors to go to Garissa, 200 miles northeast of Nairobi, to check out reports of mysterious deaths. Across the border in the Somali town of Luq, 70 people are thought to have died from the disease.

Blood samples collected after the outbreak began were sent for testing to South Africa and to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, but delays in their arrival resulted in considerable confusion.

A researcher at the government-run Kenya Medical Research Institute identified the disease as Rift Valley fever on Jan. 13 _ but Abdalla is not completely convinced.

``In humans, we think it is Rift Valley fever complicated by something else, which we don’t know,″ she said.

The torrential rain that has turned this normally dry, bleak area into a strangely lush landscape also has hampered the medical investigation.

``Our investigation was sporadic,″ she said.

The U.N. World Food Program, which was distributing food to flood victims, allowed health workers to hitch rides into the affected areas.

The government, which relied on military helicopters to deliver ballot boxes and personnel during last month’s general elections, has been less active in transporting doctors.

Garissa district commissioner Ali M. Mbwarali says the outbreak is not being ignored, but Abdalla insists urgent measures are needed to check the spread of the disease.

Vaccinating livestock is one possible step, she said, but the government hasn’t carried out such a program for years.

``There is just not enough that is being done,″ she said. ``We are still getting reports of people dying.″

Update hourly