Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Ebola spread outpaces control bid

A Monrovia City Corporation worker mixes disinfectant before spraying it on the streets in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus (AP)
A Monrovia City Corporation worker mixes disinfectant before spraying it on the streets in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus (AP)

An Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 700 people in West Africa is moving faster than efforts to control the disease, the head of the World Health Organisation has warned as presidents from affected countries met in Guinea's capital.

Dr Margaret Chan, WHO's director general, said the meeting in Conakry "must be a turning point" in the battle against Ebola, which is now hitting people in three African capitals for the first time in history.

"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries," she said, as WHO launched a 100 million-dollar (£59.5m) response plan that includes deploying hundreds more health care workers.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the WHO pledge "needs to translate to immediate and effective action". While the group has deployed some 550 health workers, it said it did not have the resources to expand further.

Doctors Without Borders said its teams were overwhelmed with new Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and that the situation in Liberia was now "dire".

"Over the last weeks, there has been a significant surge in the epidemic - the number of cases has increased dramatically in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the disease has spread to many more villages and towns," the organisation said.

"After a lull in new cases in Guinea, there has been a resurgence in infections and deaths in the past week."

At least 729 people have died since cases first emerged in March: 339 in Guinea, 233 in Sierra Leone, 156 in Liberia and one in Nigeria.

Two American health workers in Liberia have been infected and an American man of Liberian descent died in Nigeria from the disease.

Plans are under way to bring the two American aid workers - Nancy Writebol and Dr Kent Brantly - back to the US.

While health experts say the virus is transmitted only through direct contact with bodily fluids, many sick patients have refused to go to isolation centres and have infected family members and other care-givers.

The fatality rate has been about 60% and the scenes of patients bleeding from the eyes, mouth and ears has led many relatives to keep their sick family members at home instead.

Sierra Leone is now sending teams door to door in search of Ebola patients and others who have been exposed to the disease.

Dr Chan emphasised that the general public "is not at high risk of infection", but also said the Ebola virus should not be allowed to circulate widely.

"Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes," she said. "We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises."

Randy Schoepp, chief of diagnostics at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which is running the only lab in Liberia testing Ebola samples, said: "The virus is getting to large, dense, city areas. We're now getting samples (to test) from all over."

But he believes "we're only seeing a small portion of the cases out there", partly because many drivers are scared to transport vials of blood that may contain Ebola to the lab.

Other countries are taking precautions to prevent the spread of Ebola.

The African Union mission in Somalia canceled a planned troop rotation by Sierra Leonean forces in an effort to prevent Ebola from crossing into the Horn of Africa country.

Seychelles forfeited an African Cup qualifying game and withdrew from the competition rather than allow Sierra Leone's soccer team to travel to the Indian Ocean island. And a cyclist from Sierra Leone competed in the Commonwealth Games after testing negative for Ebola.

Nigeria's minister of health Onyebuchi Chukwu said the government located 10 more people who had primary contact with the man who flew to Lagos and died there because of Ebola. The government is tracking down the remaining people who had contact with him, he said.

As of Friday, 69 people are under surveillance and two are quarantined, Mr Chukwu said.

President Barack Obama said the United States was taking precautions for next week's US-African summit in Washington. Administration officials said the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone had cancelled their trip to Washington for the gathering of African leaders.

Meanwhile, families in the United States expect to be reunited as early as this weekend with some of the more than 300 Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from West Africa as a precaution.

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