9 August 2014

Guinea Shuts Borders in Bid to Halt Ebola Spread

Guinea has shut its borders with West African neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia, seeking to halt the spread of Ebola. Almost 1,000 people have died in the outbreak, the majority in the three neighboring countries.

Guinean authorities on Saturday said they were temporarily shutting the borders primarily to prevent infected people crossing into Guinea, where at least 367 people have died of Ebola since March. Another 18 patients are being treated in isolation, in the country where the first cases of the current outbreak were diagnosed.

"We have provisionally closed the frontier between Guinea and Sierra Leone because of all the news that we have received from there recently," Health Minister Remy Lamah said, then noting that crossings to Liberia would also be closed.

The border regions have logged high numbers of cases

Despite formally shutting the official crossings, preventing people from crossing the long, porous borders in rural areas is likely to prove extremely difficult. Guinea's Minister for International Cooperation, Moustapha Koutoub Sano, told reporters in the capital Conakry that the decision was taken in consultation with the two neighbors.

Sierra Leone on Saturday deployed some 1,500 troops to two eastern districts - near the border with Guinea - where most of the country's cases have been discovered.

Guinea also borders Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and the Ivory Coast, where there have been no recorded cases of Ebola as yet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday declared this year's Ebola outbreak to be an international health emergency, saying 961 people had died from 1,779 known cases. The WHO stopped short of advising international travel restrictions, however.

Nigeria seeks volunteers, Liberia pledges funds

In the Nigerian capital Lagos, authorities on Saturday appealed for volunteers to plug a shortfall of medical staff. "I won't lie about that," Lagos state health commissioner Jide Idris said on state television.

Nine people have been diagnosed with Ebola in Lagos, home to some 20 million people, and two of them have died. President Goodluck Jonathan on Friday declared a state of emergency in Nigeria, pledging roughly $11.7 million (9 million euros) in funding to isolate patients, screen border crossings, and trace people exposed to the disease.

High hygiene standards for medical staff are essential

Similarly, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Saturday met with hundreds of health workers at the capital Monrovia's city hall, pledging up to $18 million to improve the country's medical response.

"If we haven't done enough so far, I have come to apologize to you," she said.

Experimental treatments being tested

Medical staff, missionaries and other first responders have been particularly hard hit by the outbreak, because of their proximity to the infectious disease, which spreads via contact with bodily fluids. There is no proven vaccine or medication to combat Ebola; alleviating symptoms including fever, vomiting and diarrhea - mainly through rehydration - is the most effective response. Quarantine procedures for those infected and high standards of hygiene for those exposed are crucial to slow the spread.

Several experimental drugs are in testing to combat Ebola, however, and a WHO official on Saturday told the AFP news agency that it was "realistic" to hope for a vaccine by 2015. Microbiologist Marie-Paule Kieny, who headed the WHO's vaccine division during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, said the circumstances justified somewhat hurried development and testing of potential treatements.

"Will it have been tested as well as other vaccines we put out in the field? No, absolutely not. That would be impossible," Kieny told AFP. She said it was particularly important to speed up government authorization for phase-one trials, which in Africa can often take months.

One potential drug, ZMapp, from US company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, is being used to treat two infected US citizens who recently returned from Africa. Kieny said the drug appeared "promising." Kieny also said that the WHO was working with several pharmaceutical companies.

msh/jr (AFP, Reuters)

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