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WHO says 70 die from illness in Congo, denies Ebola link

KINSHASA/DAKAR (Reuters) - At least 70 people have died in northern Democratic Republic of Congo from an outbreak of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, the World Health Organization said on Thursday, denying that the illness was Ebola.

A WHO report dated Thursday and seen by Reuters said that 592 people had contracted the disease, of whom 70 died. Five health care workers, including one doctor, are among the dead.

"This is not Ebola," a WHO spokesman said in an email to Reuters on Thursday.

A local priest who asked not to be named said that the illness had affected several villages and estimated that the death toll was over 100 people.

Kinshasa sent its health minister, Felix Kabange Numbi, and a team of experts on Wednesday to the region after reports of several deaths.

The outbreak began in the remote jungle province of Equateur where the first case of Ebola was reported in 1976, prompting speculation that it was the same illness that has killed more than 1,350 people in an outbreak now raging in West Africa.

Symptoms of the two diseases are similar; they include vomiting, diarrhoea and internal bleeding. But the fatality rate for this outbreak of haemorrhagic gastroenteritis is much lower than the West Africa Ebola outbreak, at around 12 percent versus close to 60 percent.

The WHO, which sent representatives to the area on Wednesday together with the Congolese team of experts, said four samples would be flown from the town of Boende on Friday to the capital Kinshasa for further testing.

Medical charity MSF said it had also sent a team to Equateur province to assess the situation. MSF said it was too early to confirm what the disease was.

(Reporting by Bienvenu Bakumanya and Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn/Mark Heinrich)

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