Africa

West African nations in Ebola crisis talks

AFP

Health ministers from West African countries have gathered to formulate a "drastic action" plan as the Ebola virus continues to kill in the region.

A member of Medecins sans Frontieres puts on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated. (AFP)

Health ministers from across western Africa gathered on Wednesday to plan “drastic action” against the world’s deadliest ever Ebola epidemic as dozens of new cases continue to emerge.

There have been 759 confirmed or suspected cases of the haemorrhagic fever in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday. The current outbreak of the virus has killed 467 people.

The new death toll represents an increase of 129 cases – or 38% – since the UN agency’s previous bulletin a week earlier.

“This makes the ongoing Ebola outbreak the largest in terms of the number of cases and deaths as well as geographical spread,” said the WHO when announcing a two-day conference in Ghana to be attended by 11 West African health ministers.

“Decisions taken at this meeting will be critical in addressing the current and future outbreaks,” it said.

International experts
Since West Africa’s first epidemic of the deadly and highly contagious fever broke out in Guinea in January, the WHO has sent in more than 150 experts to help tackle the regional crisis.

Despite the efforts of the UN agency and other health workers, there has been a “significant increase” in the rate of new cases and deaths in recent weeks, the WHO said.

Medical humanitarian aid organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said last week that the spread of the virus, which has had a mortality rate of up to 90% in previous outbreaks, was “out of control”, with more than 60 outbreak hotspots.

The agency has said Ebola could spread to other countries, warning that those hardest hit could struggle to contain the disease.

The agency’s top Ebola specialist, Pierre Formenti, said last month that the recent surge in cases had come in part because efforts to contain the virus had been relaxed too quickly after the outbreak appeared to slow down in April.

“One case can restart an entire epidemic,” he said, justifying the dramatic measures taken to contain Ebola, which is spread via bodily fluids including sweat, meaning just touching an infected person is enough to spread the virus.

Ministers meeting
Ministers from Guinea, where 413 confirmed, suspected and probable cases have surfaced so far, including 303 deaths, and Liberia, which has seen 107 cases and 65 deaths, will take part in the meeting.

Sierra Leone, which has recorded 239 cases and 99 deaths, will be represented at the conference.

In addition, officials from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, along with Ghana and countries as far afield as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been invited, the WHO said.

They will be joined by a host of UN agencies and other aid organisations, including MSF and the Red Cross, as well as personnel from disease control centres in West Africa, the United States, Britain and the European Union.

The WHO has described the current Ebola epidemic as one of the most challenging since the virus was first identified in 1976 in what is now the DRC.

Deadliest outbreak
That outbreak, the deadliest until this year, killed 280 people, according to WHO figures.

Ebola can fell its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea -– in some cases shutting down organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.

No specific medicine or vaccine exists for the virus, which is named after a small river in the DRC.

“So far we are free from Ebola, but we cannot rest on our laurels,” said a spokesperson for Ghana’s health ministry.

“We can’t afford to have Ebola in Ghana and we also need to stop this from spreading in the other west African nations.” – AFP

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