Libreville - The death toll from an outbreak of Ebola in a remote part of Central Africa has reached 54 after several people who died in recent weeks were found to have had the disease, health officials said on Friday.

Gabon's health minister, Faustin Boukoubi, told state radio 42 people had now died in the northeast of the country around the town of Mekambo since the outbreak began late last year.

The World Health Organisation said in a statement on the minister's announcement that the new figure, increasing the toll in Gabon from the total of 23 announced last month, was due largely to positive tests carried out on people who had already died, not to new deaths.

Across the border in the Republic of Congo, 12 people have died out of 20 confirmed as infected with Ebola, the WHO said.

International medical workers have had a stormy time in the remote forested region, not least because they have told locals not to touch the bodies of victims of the disease, whereas local burial rites involve removing certain body parts.

Doctors' orders not to eat ape meat - a local speciality which scientists fear may spread the disease - have also produced hostility, and an international medical team was forced to leave the affected area last month, fearing for their safety.

Ebola kills up to 90 percent of its victims by causing massive internal bleeding. It is spread by contact with infected bodily fluids and there is no known vaccine and no known cure.

The disease is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was discovered in 1976 and killed more than 250 people in 1995. This is the third known outbreak in Gabon since 1994. - Reuters