As the Ebola death toll surpasses 1,500, West African health ministers have met in Ghana for crisis talks. They are all united in the fear of the virus spreading; and yet, each country faces individual challenges.
The World Health Organization on Thursday said that it had logged more than 3,000 suspected Ebola cases in Africa, and 1,552 deaths from the virus. The UN's health agency warned of many more cases before the outbreak can be contained. DW takes a look at the latest developments in the five directly affected countries.
Guinea was the starting point of the current outbreak of Ebola. Scientists believe that the virus started its deadly journey there in December 2013. The first confirmed case was a two-year-old toddler who died in the village of Meliandou in the south-eastern part of the country. Soon after, his mother, sister and grandmother passed away, too. From their village, the virus quickly spread through the country. On March 24th, the Guinean ministry of health informed the World Health Organization of 59 confirmed Ebola deaths. "This epidemic just killed our health system," the Guinean minister for health, Remy Lama, told DW's French service. "A health system that, even beforehand, lacked the qualified staff and equipment needed to take care of such an outbreak."
In the beginning, doctors in Guinea often failed to correctly diagnose Ebola since the disease had never before broken out in the region. "It was a total surprise for the West African countries," Lama says. But even after media campaigns about Ebola had kicked in, the disease continued to spread. "When people were told at hospitals that no vaccine or medication could protect them from Ebola, they preferred to visit traditional healers," says Guinea's health minister. The number of Ebola deaths in the country continues to rise.
From Guinea's border regions, the disease continued its spread towards neighboring countries Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Liberia, the virus reached the capital city Monrovia by mid-June. After an angry mob had attacked an isolation center for patients in the slum neighborhood of West Point on August 16, the government decided to put the whole area under quarantine and imposed nighttime curfews. But the measures taken do not seem to have effectively contained the outbreak.
"Ebola today is all over the city," says Lindis Hurum, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia. "All areas, all districts of the city today have people dying and people getting sick every day." Even with international aid and medical staff coming in from abroad, not every patient is properly taken care of. "The system is completely overstretched", Hurum says. "There are too many and the response is too weak." With almost 700 people dead from Ebola as of August 28, Liberia remains the country hit the hardest by the virus.
Soon after the outbreak, countries in the region began scanning people for signs of fever at border crossings. Some even closed their borders altogether. In mid-August, Liberia ordered armed forces to shoot anyone trying to illegally enter the country from neighboring Sierra Leone, another country severely affected by the disease - and another country still struggling to recover from bloody civil wars in the 1990s. Many airlines have now suspended services to the region, with British Airways stopping its flights to Sierra Leone's capital Freetown until next year. Air France followed suit with the suspension of all flights to the country on August 27.
With governments urging their citizens to leave the region and many international companies pulling out staff, the protective measures have now started to hamper economic growth in West Africa. On a visit to Freetown on Wednesday, Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank promised $60 million (45.5 million euros) in emergency funds. He asked investors to come back to the countries affected by Ebola. "There's no reason not to come to Sierra Leone", he said. "My presence here sends a signal. Let us impose restrictions only on the basis of what the World Health Organization advises. But anything else will be damaging in the long term to our economies, to trade, to prosperity in the region."
On July 25, Nigeria reported its first Ebola case in Lagos, the country's most populous city and West Africa's economic hub. The virus came in with a patient who had travelled from Liberia's capital Monrovia to Lagos. In contrast to authorities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, who were overwhelmed by the disease, Nigeria seems to be successfully tackling Ebola thus far.
"We have to acknowledge that the government reacted quickly to the first case," says John Vertefeuille of the United States Center for Disease Control's team in Nigeria. Possible contacts of the patient were tracked down, checked and isolated when necessary. The country established a crisis reaction center and has put emphasis on awareness campaigns, with radio and television broadcasting an incessant stream of information about hygiene measures against the disease. Yet, on August 28, Nigeria's Health Minister had to report the first confirmed Ebola case outside of Lagos. The patient, a medical doctor, died in Port Harcourt, the capital of southern River State, Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu told German news agency dpa.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
When the DRC's health minister, Felix Kabange Numbi, informed the public about an Ebola outbreak in the northern Equateur province of the country on August 24, he was quick to add that the cases there were unrelated to the epidemic spreading across West Africa. Experts later confirmed the virus identified in DRC was a different - and most probably less dangerous - strain than the one found in West Africa. Minister Numbi was also not invited to the crisis talks in Accra on August 28 that had been organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Still, the World Health Organization warns that the disease continues to spread and might do so beyond the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea or Nigeria. "Of course the countries that are bordering the affected countries are more likely to have people moving across. So they have to be extra aware," says Nyka Alexander, a spokeswoman for the WHO's Outbreak Coordination Center in Conakry, Guinea. "But the WHO has asked all countries in the world to be prepared in case they should see a case of Ebola."