By Saliou Samb
An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa is out of control but can be stopped with more resources and tougher measures, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Margaret Chan said on Friday.
The outbreak is the worst since the disease was discovered in the mid-1970s, with 729 deaths in four different countries.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” Chan told the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone at an emergency meeting in Guinea’s capital Conakry.
“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, according to a WHO transcript.
But the outbreak could be stopped and the general public was not at high risk of infection, she said.
Governments might need to impose restrictions on population movements and public gatherings, and to use police and civil defence forces to guarantee the safety and security of response teams, she said.
With healthcare systems struggling to cope, more than 60 medical workers have lost their lives, hampering efforts to tackle the disease.
Two Americans working for aid group Samaritan’s Purse who contracted the disease in Liberia were in a serious condition and would be medically evacuated by early next week, the organisation said.
Liberia has put in place measures including closing all schools and some government departments as well as possibly quarantining affected communities. Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency and called in troops to isolate Ebola victims.
However, the leader of Guinea’s Ebola taskforce said his country would not be following these moves.
“Some measures taken by our neighbours could make the fight against Ebola even harder,” Aboubacar Sidiki Diakité told Reuters, citing in particular the closure of schools.
“When children are not supervised, they can go anywhere and make the problem worse.”
NEEDS OUTSTRIP CAPACITY TO RESPOND
The outbreak has prompted some international organisations to withdraw. The U.S. Peace Corps has said it was withdrawing 340 volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Samaritans Purse said on Friday it would complete the evacuation of its 60 international staff from Liberia over the weekend and WaterAid said on Friday it was suspending its operations there as well.
The WHO is launching a $100 million response plan and the United States is providing material and technical support to the three countries. Further assistance will be discussed at a meeting in Washington next week.
Chan said she was taking personal responsibility for coordinating international response efforts and mobilising the vast support needed to fight the virus.
The WHO has convened an Emergency Committee on Aug 6-7 to decide if the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern and to recommend measures to tackle it.
“The demands created by Ebola in West Africa outstrip your capacities to respond,” Chan said.
Chan said cultural practices such as traditional burials and deep-seated beliefs were a significant cause of the spread and a barrier to containment and needed to change.
Several healthworkers have been attacked and families often prefer to hide victims of the disease rather than take them to clinics.
On Friday, the government of southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra state quarantined a mortuary where the body of a Nigerian man who died in Liberia had been deposited a day earlier. They also quarantined anyone who had made contact with it.
“We are conducting pathological tests on cause of death,” Anambra state government secretary Oseloka Obaze told Reuters.
The haemorrhagic virus can kill up to 90 per cent of those infected, though the fatality rate in this epidemic is about 60 per cent. In the final stages, its symptoms include external bleeding, internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhoea – at which point Ebola becomes highly contagious.