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JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Health officials said they had found no evidence to back up reports of a suspected outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in south Sudan, suggesting locals may have made it up to draw doctors to the underdeveloped area.
South Sudan's army this month said 20 soldiers and three of their wives had died of a haemorrhagic illness feared to be Ebola in barracks in the remote Western Bahr el Ghazal region, news that sparked widespread concern in the territory.
The south's health ministry told Reuters on Wednesday it had since visited the area and found no signs of the disease.
"Our team went there and they did not find any cases ... They did not find any deaths as was reported ... They concluded there was no Ebola," said Atem Nathan the ministry official charged with investigating the outbreak.
Nathan said that the reports were likely a cry for help for more medical care by people living in the war-ravaged area.
"It is the lack of services that turns into these rumours," he said, adding that during the Sudan's long north-south civil war, communities sometimes made up outbreaks to attract humanitarian assistance to their areas.
South Sudan's army said the director of its medical corps had also visited the barracks and reached the same conclusion.
"It seems that the report by both the local county administration and the SPLA (the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army) command about the deaths of the 23 soldiers was something to draw attention ... to the acute lack of medicine in Raja County," said SPLA spokesman Kuol Diem Kuol.
"They have succeeded. Now medicines are being taken there."
South Sudan ended a two-decade civil war with the north in 2005, but still has little health infrastructure and few medical staff.
The World Health Organisation says Ebola, one of the most virulent viral diseases known to mankind, was discovered in south Sudan and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. Some strains have a death rate of 25 to 90 percent.
A 2004 outbreak of Ebola killed seven people in the south. Health officials say there is still no known cure for the disease, which is spread through bodily fluids, including blood.
(Reporting by Skye Wheeler, editing by Andrew Heavens and Ralph Boulton)