Ebola fears grips West Africa

ABIDJAN – People across West Africa are in a state of alarm after cases of the deadly Ebola virus were recorded in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with many voicing fears of a regional pandemic.

"The fact that you don't know who is contaminated, and you are told not to shake hands or stay close to sweating people, sounds bizarre to the ordinary man," Jeff Stanley, a U.K.-born virologist and independent aid worker in Sierra Leone's Freetown, told Anadolu Agency.

"Known cases could be isolated… but what about the unknown cases?" he asked. "They are more dangerous."

"And you can't prevent people from travelling or moving naturally from one place to another," Stanley said.

"Yet some of these travelers may carry the virus unknowingly and contaminate others upon their arrival at a new destination," the virologist added.

"It's a permanent risk that can catch the whole continent."

The Ebola virus, a form of hemorrhagic fever, was detected in January in the hinterlands of Guinea.

According to the Guinean Health Ministry, 78 of the 122 cases of suspected Ebola have resulted in fatalities.

It added, however, that only 22 of those fatalities had been officially confirmed as Ebola.

Last week, six people succumbed to the virus in Liberia, while five other deaths were registered in Sierra Leone.

Senegal, meanwhile, has closed its southern border with Guinea as a preventive measure.

Senegalese Health Minister Awa Marie Coll Seck said that, although the border closure was not recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), it was her country's prerogative to protect its population.

Ivory Coast, for its part, has set up epidemiological surveillance centers along its borders to monitor new arrivals, especially those from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Ebola is a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure.

According to the WHO, the virus – which has a fatality rate of some 90 percent – tends to cause severe viral hemorrhagic fever. It is transmitted through close contact with the bodily fluids – such as sweat, blood or saliva – of an infected person or animal.

The tropical fever first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is named after the Ebola River, which runs close to the Congolese town of Yambuku – the site of the first documented case of the virus.

-Challenge-

Containing the deadly disease poses a challenge to health organizations and governments in the region, which are striving to control the epidemic.

Michel Van Herp, an epidemiologist with the French-founded humanitarian agency Doctors without Borders (MSF), said that basic preventive measure included monitoring and isolating patients diagnosed with the virus.

"It is difficult to initially suggest where and how the virus is spreading," he told AA.

"What needs to be done is to trace the chain of transmission [and] monitor and isolate diagnosed patients, which is what we are doing here in Guinea," said Van Herp, who has worked in the West African country since the appearance of the virus in January.

His greatest fear isn't the movement of potentially-infected people, but the lack of adequate medical facilities.

"Standard medical facilities are indispensable to… ongoing efforts in Guinea in the fight against this deadly virus, which [are lacking] at the moment," said the epidemiologist.

The three West African countries in which cases of Ebola have been confirmed all have poor public healthcare systems.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has already allocated $250,000 to assist ongoing anti-Ebola efforts.

And on Monday, the European Union Commission disbursed $690,000 to assist aid workers in affected countries.

Both the MSF and the WHO, meanwhile, are helping to isolate suspected cases and educate local communities about basic hygiene.

Dr. Yokouide Allarangar, WHO representative in the Ivory Coast, says if recommendations are implemented, there's little reason to fear a regional pandemic.

"Instead of a general panic, I think the best thing to do is to stay conscious about the situation during this difficult time and practice the different preventive directives given by health officials," Allarangar told AA.

Consumption of bush meat – which includes monkeys, bats and rats – has been banned by both the Guinean and Ivorian governments.

School students, meanwhile, are being urged to constantly wash their hands with antiseptic soap before eating.

Guinean President Alpha Condé on Monday appealed for calm in his country, assuring the public that health workers were doing their best to contain the situation.

While Malaria and HIV/AIDS have long represented the chief health concerns for most West Africans, now they must also worry about Ebola.

"Every other person in Guinea is a suspected carrier of the Ebola virus," Aminata Diallo, a 41-year-old hairdresser, told AA by phone from Conakry, the Guinean capital.

"Everybody is scared. You don't know what to eat or who to mingle with," she said. "It's causing a general panic here."

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency