(Corrects paragraph 8 to show four died in last year's outbreak, not eight.)
* Congo facing ninth Ebola epidemic since virus discovered
* Longer time-span gives virus more time to infect people
* Health ministry dispatches team to affected area
By Patient Ligodi
KINSHASA, May 10 (Reuters) - Cases of hemorrhagic fever were reported in an area of Congo facing an Ebola epidemic as long ago as December and the first deaths were reported in January, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday, as four new suspected cases surfaced.
The health ministry said on Tuesday that at least 17 people had died in an area of northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo where health officials have now confirmed an outbreak of Ebola, although it did not give a time-frame for the deaths.
Only two cases have been confirmed as Ebola, by a laboratory in the capital Kinshasa.
An interval of as long as five months since the first infection would give the virus time potentially to have infected many people before action was taken to contain it.
The epidemic so far appears to be centred around the village of Ikoko Impenge, near the town of Bikoro. Serge Ngaleto, the director of Bikoro's main hospital said it had received four new suspected cases on Thursday, including two nurses who had treated others showing symptoms.
"After contact, the nurses began showing signs," Ngaleto told Reuters by telephone. "We have isolated them."
That would bring the total number of people reporting symptoms to 25, of whom at least 17 have so far died.
This is the ninth time Ebola has been recorded in the vast, forested central African nation since it was first identified near its northern Ebola river in the 1970s. It comes less than a year after an outbreak killed four people in Congo's remote northeastern forests.
"According to our early information, the cases have been reported since December and the first deaths were reported in January, but the link between the deaths and the epidemic has not yet been established," WHO Congo spokesman Eugene Kabambi told Reuters.
Ngaleto said of all cases so far reported, seven were currently in the hospital in Bikoro. All of those could be traced back to Ikoko Impenge, about 60 km (37 miles) away from Bikoro, except for one from the next door hamlet of Pangi.
The health ministry said on Thursday it had dispatched a team of 12 experts to the area to try to trace new contacts of the disease, identify the epicentre and all affected villages and provide resources.
"This advance team brought the first batches of equipment, mostly containing rapid diagnostic tests for the Ebola virus and laser thermometers," the Health Ministry statement said.
It said they had already arrived in the regional capital Mbandaka, about 150 km away from the affected area.
Ebola is best known and most feared for the internal and external bleeding it can cause in its victims, owing to damage done to blood vessels. Victims often die of shock but symptoms can be vague, including fever, muscle pain, diarrhoea and nausea.
The worst Ebola epidemic in history ended in West Africa just two years ago after killing more than 11,300 people and infecting 28,600 in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Nigeria's immigration service said on Thursday it had increased screening tests at airports and other entry points as a precautionary measure following the Ebola outbreak in Congo. Similar measures helped Africa's most populous country contain the virus during the West African epidemic that began in 2013.
Congo's long experience of Ebola and its vast, remote geography mean outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate and snuff out.
But Ikoko Impenge and Bikoro lie not far from the banks of the Congo River, an essential waterway for transport and commerce, downstream of which lie both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, capital of neighbouring Congo Republic.
Between them, the two cities have a population of more than 12 million. (Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba and Amedee Mwarabu; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Catherine Evans and Kevin Liffey)