West Africa on high alert as medics battle the Ebola virus | Africa | DW | 25.03.2014
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West Africa on high alert as medics battle the Ebola virus

Health workers are grappling to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. At least 59 people are feared to have died in Guinea. Officials have confirmed the virus has crossed borders.

Liberia on Tuesday said it suspected the deadly Ebola virus may have spread to its territory. According to officials from the health ministry, the Ebola cases were detected in Zorzor and Foyah, all of them part of Lofa district in northern Liberia that shares a common border with Guinea.

"As of Tuesday (25.03.2014) morning six cases have been reported of which five have already died," Liberian Health Minister Walter Gwenigale said in statement.

Two health workers from Doctors without Borders wearing protective gear enter a hut in Guinea as they search for Ebola patients.

Health workers have to identify all those suspected to have been infected

"The team is already investigating the situation, tracing contacts, collecting blood samples and sensitizing local health authorities on the disease," the minister added.

Gwenigale did not specify the victims' nationalities, but medical aid group Doctors without Borders (MSF) said they were Liberian residents who had attended funerals in the Ebola-hit area of Guinea. The region has strong "family ties" with northern Liberia. "People come to attend funerals on one side and unfortunately they unwittingly get infected and then return home," MSF emergency coordinator Marie-Christine Ferir told AFP.

Stopping the virus

The World Health Organization acting country representative Dr. Peter Clement said the organization is collaborating with Liberian health authorities to tackle the Ebola virus. "It means all of us should be responsible to prevent the spread of the disease," the WHO official stated.

According to Clement, the virus can be stopped by "identifying the cases early to be able to provide the necessary support."

Victor Seah, a resident of Monrovia, told DW he was concerned. "Who knows it could even come to the capital now, or who knows it is in the capital now," Victor said. "We want to send the message that Liberians should avoid shaking hands. Wash your hands very well before you eat. Be careful of eating fresh meat from the rural areas," he added.

"It's a threat to our nation as a whole."

An epidemic unfolding

Guinea's Ministry of Health noted the outbreak had reached “epidemic proportions”, after registering almost 100 infections. Efforts were being made to stop the virus from reaching the capital of Conakry, home to some 3 million people. The government has been issuing messages on state radio and television urging people to wash their hands and avoid contact with sick people.

Supplies of chlorine and bleach were running out at stores according to medical officials.

Sierra Leone's health ministry noted on Tuesday it was investigating two suspected cases of the virus. "We still do not have any confirmed cases of Ebola in the country. What we do have are suspected cases which our health teams are investigating and taking blood samples from people who had come in contact with those suspected to have the virus," chief medical officer Brima Kargbo told reporters.

Supplies for medical aid group Doctors Without Borders loaded in boxes to fight Ebola in Guinea.

Medical supplies to prevent the virus from spreading have been received in Guinea

Sierra Leonean aid organization the Health for All Coalition warned of a high risk of transmission in border areas. "People, goods and animals such as sheep, goats and cows used in Sierra Leone come from Guinea and it is these districts that they are brought into. And in these areas, people hunt for birds, monkeys and baboons for food," the aid organization said.

Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have raised their epidemiological surveillance systems. Ivory Coast's National Public Hygiene Institute Director, Simplice Dagnan, said officials were worried the virus could "easily" arrive there. "Animals don't recognize borders," Dagnan warned.

Cross-Atlantic infection?

There were fears the virus may have crossed continents. Canadian health officials said a man returning to Canada from Liberia was seriously ill in hospital after experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus. He was placed in solitary confinement, with his family in quarantine. Results later showed he was negative.

Scientists at France's Institut Pasteur who have been tackling the Guinean Ebola outbreak believe they have identified the virus as the Zaire strain, the most lethal of all. To date, no treatment or vaccine is available for the Ebola virus. According to WHO, Ebola kills between 25 and 90 percent of those infected.

Some health publications describe the tropical virus as a "molecular shark". It can fell its victims within days. Symptoms range from severe fever and muscle pain, to weakness, vomiting and diarrhea.

An image of the Ebola virus

Ebola virus multiplies very fast giving the immune system little chance of fighting

In some cases it can shut down organs causing unstoppable bleeding. It can be transmitted to humans through wild animals, direct contact from another human's blood, excreta, or by sexual contact and the unprotected handling of contaminated corpses.

There is no known vaccine or cure for the virus. It was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976. Since then, the central African country has suffered eight outbreaks.

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