Eleven people have died, with five more currently hospitalized, after contracting an unidentified illness at a funeral in Liberia.

Because the nature of the illness has yet to be determined, it cannot be confirmed that the victims all contracted it while attending the funeral for an un-named Christian leader in the Western African nation, though it has been verified that all seventeen dead or hospitalized patients were present at the event.

“We don’t want to be specific as to the funeral being the reason for the death. We are still investigating and putting our acts together to know what happened,” Sorbor George, communication director for Liberia’s Ministry of Health, told the media.

If the illness can indeed be tied to the funeral, the ramifications may be far-reaching, as it was attended by people hailing from as many as six different African nations, meaning the unidentified, but highly deadly, disease may have already spread well beyond the Liberian borders.

“We are still investigating. The only thing we have ruled out is … Ebola,” said Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer Francis Kateh.

The “timing of the events, duration between disease onset and death, higher case fatality among children are all suggestive of ingestion or exposure to a contaminant,” Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the American Center for Disease Control, explained.  The ages and identities of the dead and hospitalized have not been provided to the media thus far.

According to George, “We are still not aware of what killed them.” Liberian medical officials are conducting tests and are now “relying on the international community to help determine what the illness may be.”

Symptoms of the mysterious illness include fever, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea, all of which are shared with the early stages of Ebola.  Liberia was one of three nations struck heavily by the Ebola outbreak last year and it has only been eleven months since the last case was reported, but doctors in Liberia say they have confirmed the recent outbreak is not a recurrence of the dangerous disease.

“They have taken samples from the dead bodies and all the samples came back negative for Ebola. They will be looking of course for other hemorrhagic fevers and for bacteria, if there was any common exposure to water contamination or food contamination,” World Health Organization spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a briefing in Geneva.  Other ailments that have already been ruled out include yellow fever and Lassa fever.

“WHO, CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) and other partners are providing technical and logistical support to the rapid response team that has been activated at district and county levels,” Chaib added.

Liberia was the last nation formally declared free of active Ebola virus transmission as recently as June of last year.  It was one of three West African nations considered to be the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that would ultimately infect some 28,600 people, killing more than 11,300 of them.  Fortunately, medical facilities in the region are now well versed in containing infectious diseases like Ebola, allowing for a swift response as reports of the deaths reached local officials.

Five people remain hospitalized and under observation in the Sinoe county hospital the other eleven victims died in.  Hospital staff have enacted quarantine procedures as they work to not only determine what the illness is, but who it may have been spread to before authorities became aware of the severity of the situation.

For now, Western Africa is once again holding its breath, hoping to avoid another devastating outbreak.

Image courtesy of the BBC