9 August 2014

West Africa: Ebola Concerns Hit Home in France

With the World Health Organization now calling the Ebola outbreak a global emergency, the virus is no longer seen as a distant problem. That message is hitting home in France, a major hub for West African air traffic.

At places like Le Fouta Djalon, a Guinean restaurant in central Paris that serves up traditional dishes like fufu and peanut sauce, talk of Ebola weaves into the beat of local music.

"My brothers, sisters and parents are in Conakry," says Alpha Wess, a stocky man sporting a halo of dreadlocks, who sips his coffee at the restaurant. "I'm very worried about them."

Wess fled the dictatorship in his native Guinea a decade ago. Today, the reggae singer and political dissident fears another threat: the Ebola virus now ravaging his homeland and other parts of West Africa.

"The Guinean community is very close here - closer than we are back home, because ethnic and political difference don't have a place in France," says Wess, who has performed in charity concerts as part of the diaspora's "Ebola Solidarity" campaign. "When there's a crisis like this, we're united."

While he cannot return for political reasons, Wess phones home frequently. But Fouta Djalon owner Oumou Barry says the virus will not stop her visits.

"I was home in March," says Barry, who hails from northern Guinea. "I told everyone to wash their hands, clean their homes, keep their kids inside. And I call my mother every day."

Cross-border transmission

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which account for the overwhelming majority of the Ebola cases, have all declared states of emergency. But the virus is spreading to new countries including Nigeria and, possibly, Burkina Faso. Spain and the United States have repatriated citizens with Ebola for treatment. With global travel, US officials say, the virus' spread is inevitable.

So far, no cases have been detected in France, although an Air France flight from Conakry was briefly quarantined in April over an Ebola scare.

"Even if the risk of contamination cannot be ruled out, it remains very low," says Dr. Francois Bricaire, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris.

"But, in my opinion, the risk of an epidemic appears unlikely. Because from the moment a case is diagnosed, measures will be taken immediately to stop the transmission."

Still, the country is beefing up its guard. Air France flights from West Africa now screen passengers before departure and French airports watch out for suspect cases. A number of French hospitals, including Pitie-Salpetriere, are equipped with special isolation rooms.

"You need to be careful because the incubation period can span from three days to three weeks," Bricaire says. "So someone could be sick in France or elsewhere in Europe and not be detected immediately... and contaminate those around him."

Anxiety amid the color

In neighborhoods like the Villette area of northern Paris, where residents wear colorful boubous and ply sweet-tasting grilled corn, anxiety also grips Africans from areas so far spared by Ebola.

"It's a very, very dangerous sickness," says 65-year-old Amara Sheaur from Senegal, who calls home frequently to check up on his family.

Lassana Niakate, who heads a Malian association in the suburb of Montreuil, says members of the community fear another hardship for their conflict-scarred homeland.

"Guinea borders Mali and people cross every day," he says. "We're telling our families back home to avoid travel, especially in border areas."

For its part, France's Guinean community has organized flash mobs and concerts - like the one Wess played in - to raise awareness and funds to send medical supplies to health workers back home.

"People are dying daily," says Hamidou Diallo, president of the Association of Young Guineans in France. "This sickness is showing the shortcomings of our health structure. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it's the politicians who must address them."

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