Ebola: WHO calls emergency talks on outbreak

The current outbreak is the deadliest since Ebola was discovered in 1976

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Health ministers from 11 African countries are meeting in Accra, Ghana, in an attempt to "get a grip" on the deadly and worsening Ebola outbreak.

So far, 763 people have been infected with the virus - and 468 of these have died.

Most of the cases have been in Guinea where the outbreak started.

But it has since spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone and is now the biggest and most deadly Ebola outbreak the world has seen, say officials.

Health officials from those countries, as well as Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, and Uganda will attend the meeting.

'Get a grip'

The World Health Organization says "drastic" action is needed to stamp out the virus and ensure it does not spread to other countries in the region.

Medical staff at Ebola isolation ward in Conakry, Guinea Medical staff at Ebola isolation ward in Conakry, Guinea

"We're hoping to take decisions about how to enhance collaboration and responses [of these countries] so we can get a grip and halt this outbreak," said WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein

"We need a strong response, especially along the shared border areas where commercial and social activities continue between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. That's unlikely to stop."

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Picture of Dr Edmund Newman, PHE Dr Newman of Public Health England was working with WHO
Fighting Ebola - Dr Edmund Newman

As a virologist at Public Health England, I spent a month at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in April.

I was working for the WHO in south-east Guinea as part of the EU mobile laboratory team testing blood samples for the Ebola virus and confirming whether patients were infected or not.

When patients come into the MSF isolation facility, some walk in if they are in the early stage of the disease; others are more seriously ill and need an ambulance.

I also went out into the remote villages to help trace people who might be ill and help inform communities about the virus.

It is very challenging work. There is a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust of foreign nationals coming in and trying to help.

The biggest problem we had was people were not forthcoming about sick members of the community and getting them to the isolation centre. Some families were even hiding sick relatives and bodies.

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The WHO says travel restrictions are highly unlikely, and in any case unenforceable. These are porous borders where people travel freely to see family and friends.

Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected. There is no vaccine or cure. It spreads through contact with an infected person's bodily fluids.

The way to stop an outbreak is to isolate those who have it and ensure no-one else is exposed. Medical staff are following up on hundreds of people who have had contact with infected patients. They have to be closely monitored for 21 days before they can be given the all clear.

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever, which can start suddenly with the onset of high temperature, diarrhoea and vomiting. Some people fight the virus and survive, but most do not. They start bleeding internally and externally and eventually their organs shut down.

Increasing hostility

Understandably, there is a great deal of fear in these communities and that is hindering the international effort to bring the virus under control, say experts.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is working with the World Health Organization and the Guinea Ministry of Health. It has four isolation facilities in Guinea and more than 300 international and local staff.

Tulip Mazumdar: "It is the worst Ebola outbreak in history"

"We are seeing an increasing level of hostility borne out of fear in some communities," said Dr Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.

"We can no longer go into a number of villages any more to follow up on people who have been in contact with Ebola patients."

The charity says health ministers from affected countries need to urgently improve public understanding of the disease.

"This requires an important mobilisation of all possible community leaders from bottom to top, because we cannot do this alone"

"We are now dealing with an extraordinary situation so we need more resources to fight the epidemic and we need extra help to convince communities to change their attitudes towards the virus."

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Timeline
  • February 2014 - Outbreak of a haemorrhagic illness in south-east Guinea
  • March 2014 - Outbreak of Ebola confirmed in south-east Guinea. There are 86 cases, including 59 deaths.
  • Later that month, tests confirm Ebola has spread into Liberia.
  • May 2014 - Sierra Leone confirms Ebola has spread to the Kailahun district, in the east of the country.
  • June 2014 - MSF declares the Ebola outbreak is "out of control"
  • July 2014 - Death toll: Guinea, 302. Liberia, 67. Sierra Leone 99. Total number of deaths in West Africa 468.

Sources: PHE and WHO

In pictures: Battling Ebola in West Africa

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Follow me on Twitter: @tulipmazumdar

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