BAMAKO/NOUAKCHOTT Mauritania has closed its border with Mali to prevent the spread of Ebola, officials said on Saturday, highlighting fears of further contagion in West Africa after a girl from Guinea died of the disease in Mali this week.
Earlier, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said that his country would not close its border with Guinea despite the girl's case, which may have exposed many to the disease as she traveled hundreds of kilometers through Mali - including a stop in the capital Bamako - on public transport.
Health experts are rushing teams to Mali to help try to contain the outbreak in the sixth West African nation to record Ebola this year. Senegal and Nigeria contained their outbreaks and been declared free of the disease but at least 4,922 people have died elsewhere, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Limame Ould Deddeh, chief medical officer in Kobenni, a town in eastern Mauritania near the Mali frontier, said the government in Nouakchott had sent orders to close all land crossings. Weekly markets had been suspended, he said.
A second Mauritanian official confirmed the move.
Mali's first Ebola case was a two-year-old girl who died on Friday in Kayes, the main town in western Mali, near to the border with Mauritania and Senegal.
Kayes is a major transit point for trade with Senegal but a government official in Dakar said no decision had been taken yet on what measures would be taken.
POTENTIAL CONTACTS TRACED
Mali's Keita said the incident showed it was impossible to completely seal his country off from the outbreak in Guinea but said he remained calm as the girl's journey and potential contacts had already been traced swiftly.
"Guinea is Mali's neighbor. We have a shared border that we did not close and we will not close," he told France's RFI radio station.
Land-locked Mali relies on the ports of neighboring Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast as gateways for much of its import needs. There is little accurate data but border closures by West African states trying to protect themselves from the epidemic have had a crippling effect on regional economies.
Keita said that the girl's grandmother had made a mistake by going to a funeral in Guinea, where more than 900 people have died of Ebola, and bringing her back.
"We are paying dearly for this," he said. "But I think this will cause more fear than anything else. The case was quickly contained."
Ebola experts say the real death toll from the worst outbreak on record may be as much as three times higher due to under-reporting.
Over 10,000 people have been infected by the disease but U.N. officials warn that figure could rise exponentially in coming weeks if the global response pledged does not swiftly translate into action on the ground.
Diplomats and health experts say the Guinean girl appears to have had Ebola-like symptoms and traveled for four days before she was eventually diagnosed with the disease on Oct. 23. Ebola cases are contagious as soon as they show symptoms.
The World Health Organization said that 43 contacts had been identified and isolated. But a Malian health official, who asked not to be identified, said authorities estimated that at least 300 people had been in contact with the infected child.
"We will do everything we can to avoid panic. I notice that Bamako is calm today," Keita said.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell)