* Suspicion and tradition undermining response to disease
* Regional health ministers meet to discuss response
* Try experimental Ebola drugs in West Africa - expert
(Adds Sierra Leone government donating salaries)
By Kwasi Kpodo
ACCRA, July 2 West African states lack the
resources to battle the world's worst outbreak of Ebola and deep
cultural suspicions about the disease remain a big obstacle to
halting its spread, ministers said on Wednesday.
The outbreak has killed 467 people in Guinea, Liberia and
Sierra Leone since February, making it the largest and deadliest
ever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
West African health ministers meeting in Ghana to draw up a
regional response mixed appeals for cash with warnings of the
practices that have allowed the disease to spread across borders
and into cities.
Abubakarr Fofanah, deputy health minister for Sierra Leone,
a country with one of the world's weakest health systems, said
cash was needed for drugs, basic protective gear and staff pay.
Sierra Leone announced on Wednesday that President Ernest
Bai Koroma, his vice president and all cabinet ministers would
donate half of their salaries to help fight the outbreak, though
the total amount of the donations was not disclosed.
"In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and
panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease," Bernice
Dahn, Liberia's deputy health minister, told Reuters on the
sidelines of the Accra meeting.
"People are afraid but do not believe that the disease
exists and because of that people get sick and the community
members hide them and bury them, against all the norms we have
put in place," she said.
Authorities are trying to stop relatives of Ebola victims
from giving them traditional funerals, which often involve the
manual washing of the body, out of fear of spreading the
infection. The dead are instead meant to be buried by health
staff wearing protective gear.
Neighbouring Sierra Leone faces many of the same problems,
with dozens of those infected evading treatment, complicating
efforts to trace cases.
RED CROSS STAFF THREATENED
The Red Cross in Guinea said it had been forced to
temporarily suspend some operations in the country's southeast
after staff working on Ebola were threatened.
"Locals wielding knives surrounded a marked Red Cross
vehicle," a Red Cross official said, asking not to be named. The
official said operations had been halted for safety reasons. The
Red Cross later said only international staff were removed.
A Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) centre
in Guinea was attacked by youths in April after staff were
accused of bringing the disease into the country.
<For a map of the region affected by Ebola, please click on
Ebola causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea and
kills up to 90 percent of those it infects. Highly contagious,
it is transmitted through contact with blood or other fluids.
WHO has flagged three main factors driving its spread: the
burial of victims in accordance with tradition, the dense
populations around the capital cities of Guinea and Liberia and
the bustling cross-border trade across the region.
Health experts say the top priority must be containing Ebola
with basic infection control measures such as vigilant
handwashing and hygiene, and isolation of infected patients.
Jeremy Farrar, a professor of tropical medicine and director
of The Wellcome Trust, an influential global health charity,
said people at high risk should also be offered experimental
medicines, despite the drugs not having been fully tested.
"We have more than 450 deaths so far, and not a single
individual has been offered anything beyond tepid sponging and
'we'll bury you nicely'," Farrar told Reuters in an interview.
"It's just unacceptable."
(Additional reporting by Misha Hussain in Dakar and Umaru
Fofana in Freetown; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Joe
Bavier, Toni Reinhold)