CONAKRY Guinea faces an Ebola epidemic on an unprecedented scale as it battles to contain confirmed cases now scattered across several locations that are far apart, medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Monday.
The warning from an organization with experience of tackling Ebola in Central Africa comes after Guinea's president appealed for calm as the number of deaths linked to an outbreak on the border with Liberia and Sierra Leone hit 80.
The outbreak of one of the world's most lethal infectious diseases has spooked a number of governments with weak health systems, prompting Senegal to close its border with Guinea and other neighbors to restrict travel and cross-border exchanges.
Figures released overnight by Guinea's health ministry showed that there had been 78 deaths from 122 cases of suspected Ebola since January, up from 70. Of these, there were 22 laboratory-confirmed cases of Ebola, the ministry said.
"We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country," said Mariano Lugli, coordinator of MSF's project in Conakry.
The organization said it had been involved in nearly all other recent Ebola outbreaks, mostly in remote parts of central African nations, but Guinea is now fighting to contain the disease in numerous locations, some of which are hundreds of kilometers apart.
"This geographical spread is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organizations working to control the epidemic," Lugli added.
The outbreak of Ebola - which has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent - has centered around Guinea's southeast. But it took authorities six weeks to identify the disease, allowing it to spread over borders and to more populated areas.
Up to 400 people are identified as potential Ebola contacts in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO), told Reuters. "We need find where these people are and check on them," he said.
APPEAL FOR CALM
Cases were last week confirmed in Conakry, bringing the disease, which was previously limited to remote, lightly populated areas, to the seaside capital of 2 million people.
Guinea's President Alpha Conde late on Sunday appealed for calm. "My government and I are very worried about this epidemic," he said, ordering Guineans to take strict precautions to avoid the further spread of the disease.
"I also call on people not to give in to panic or believe the rumors that are fuelling people's fears," he added.
Liberia has recorded seven suspected and confirmed cases, including four deaths, WHO said. Health authorities on Monday said a female Ebola patient from Lofa County was admitted to Firestone hospital outside the Liberian capital Monrovia.
Health Minister Walter Gwenigale said authorities were trying to trace the taxi driver who brought her to the hospital. Health sources told Reuters the patient later died but there was no official confirmation.
Sierra Leone has reported five suspected cases, none of which have been confirmed.
Officials there on Monday forbid the entry of corpses for burial from across the country's northern border with Guinea, Chief Medical Officer Brima Kargbo told Reuters.
Kargbo said border screening had been introduced. Travelers are being asked where they are coming from and whether they or anyone they had been in contact with had fallen ill, he said.
Senegal, another neighbor of Guinea's, closed its land border over the weekend and has suspended weekly markets near the border to prevent the spread of the disease.
A spokesperson for Orange telecommunications company said it had postponed a music concert with Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour scheduled in Conakry at the weekend due to the outbreak.
Regional airline Gambia Bird delayed the launch of services to Conakry, due to start on Sunday, because of the outbreak.
If the deaths are all confirmed as Ebola, a disease that leads to vomiting, diarrhoea and external bleeding, it would be the most deadly epidemic since 187 people died in Luebo, in Congo's Kasai Orientale province, in 2007.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Emma Farge and David Lewis in Dakar, Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia and Umaru Fofana in Freetown; Writing by David Lewis and Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Eric Walsh)