Dakar — The Red Cross said it has suspended its Ebola operations in southeast Guinea, where an epidemic of the virus has killed hundreds of people, after its staff were threatened by a group of naked men armed with knives.
The incident in Gueckedou, 1,335 kms (830 miles) south of Dakar, follows a series of attacks against international health workers who have been accused of bringing the disease to Guinea. A Medicins Sans Frontieres centre in nearby Macenta was attacked by youths two months ago.
The outbreak of the deadly disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is the largest and deadliest ever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has reported 467 deaths from 759 known cases since February.
"Locals wielding knives surrounded a marked Red Cross vehicle. We've suspended operations for safety reasons. I imagine this won't be the last time this happens," said Joshua Heron, head of security for the Red Cross in West Africa.
He added that he attackers were naked at the time.
The Red Cross has launched emergency response operations in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and preparedness operations in Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal.
The suspension of the Red Cross's operations in Guinea came on the eve of a meeting in Ghana on Wednesday of 11 health ministers from West Africa to discuss how to stop the spread of the virus.
The outbreak in West Africa has left some of the world's poorest states, with porous borders and weak health systems undermined by war and misrule, grappling with one of the most lethal and contagious diseases on the planet.
The WHO said one of the major challenges to stopping the spread of the virus was cultural practices in rural communities where victims are buried according to traditional beliefs.
Ebola is spread through contact with infected tissues or body fluids, and kills up to 90 percent of those infected, with victims displaying flu-like symptoms before progressing to internal and external bleeding. There is no cure or vaccine.
With black magic and traditional medicine commonplace in West Africa, one text message circulating in the town of Gueckedou explains how a mixture of hot chocolate, Nescafe, sugar and lemon are the cure for Ebola.
Dan Epstein, a WHO spokesman, said it was a challenge to get public health officials to the communities where Ebola is being transmitted and deliver the appropriate messages.
"(We have to) teach people how to report Ebola cases, how to handle them, how to be safe if you are burying somebody who has Ebola and how to get people to report and stop transmitting Ebola," he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva)