W Africa struggles to deal with Ebola outbreak

2014-08-15 08:47
A Nigerian health official wearing a protective suit waits to screen passengers at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. (Sunday Alamba, AP)

A Nigerian health official wearing a protective suit waits to screen passengers at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. (Sunday Alamba, AP)

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Freetown - The Ebola epidemic in West Africa claimed a fourth victim in Nigeria on Thursday while the United States ordered the evacuation of diplomats' families from Sierra Leone and analysts warned of a heavy economic toll on the stricken region.

As well as four deaths, Nigeria confirmed six others were being treated at a special isolation unit in its economic capital of Lagos, correcting earlier reports that 11 people had been infected.

A serious outbreak in Lagos, Africa's most populous city, could severely disrupt the oil and gas industry in Nigeria if international companies are forced to evacuate staff and local operations are shut down, the Moody's rating agency warned on Thursday.

Any "decline in production would quickly translate into economic and fiscal deterioration", said Matt Robinson, senior credit officer at Moody's.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama called the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Sierra Leone's leader Ernest Bai Koromo, two of the countries worst hit by the epidemic which has claimed over 1 000 lives.

Mobile laboratory

The calls came as the US state department ordered families of its diplomats in Sierra Leone to leave the country to avoid exposure.

"In his conversations with both leaders, the president underscored the commitment of the United States to work with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other international partners to contain the outbreak and expressed his condolences for the lives lost," the White House said in a statement.

In Sierra Leone's parliament on Thursday, the country's chief medical officer, Dr Brima Kargbo, spoke of the difficulties health workers were facing in fighting the epidemic.

"We still have to break the chain of transmission to separate the infected from the uninfected," Kargbo said. But, he added: "There is a rejection among people of the existence of Ebola and hostility towards health workers."

The disease has taken its toll on those trying to help its victims.

Sierra Leone disclosed on Thursday that 32 nurses died from the Ebola virus while performing their duties between May 24 to August 13.

South Africa has stepped in to help the country by sending a mobile laboratory to be installed in the capital Freetown to ease the problem of having to send blood samples elsewhere for analysis, Sierra Leone's health ministry said.

'Need more centres'

In Liberia, which has suffered more than 300 deaths, work began on Thursday to expand its Ebola treatment centre in the capital Monrovia - one of only two centres in the country of 4.2 million.

"We need to increase the size of this place because more and more people arrive every day due to the awareness programme," Nathaniel Dovillie, head of the centre, told AFP.

"The number of sick compared to the number of available places is a problem. We need more centres in Monrovia."

The cost of tackling the virus threatens to exact a severe economic toll on the already impoverished west African nations at the epicentre of the outbreak - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - the Moody's rating agency warned.

"The outbreak risks having a direct financial effect on government budgets via increased health expenditures that could be significant,"

Liberia spent $12m tackling the Ebola outbreak between April and June, and looks set to spend much more in the coming weeks.

Draconian restrictions

The shutting down of schools, borders and government services was adding to the financial impact, Robinson said.

Increasingly draconian restrictions have been put in place across the region.

Guinea, where the outbreak has killed at least 377, declared a "health emergency" on Wednesday and ordered strict controls at border points and a ban on moving bodies "from one town to another until the end of the epidemic".

Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama has declared a three-month ban on international conferences in West Africa's second-largest economy.

A number of airlines have cancelled flights in and out of west Africa. Gambia suspended all flights from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to a transport ministry document obtained by AFP.

Although the World Health Organisation confirmed that other African countries, including Kenya, were labelled at "high risk" due to their popular transport hubs, it also emphasised that "air travel, even from Ebola-affected countries, is low risk for Ebola transmission" because the virus is not airborne.

Experimental treatments

The death toll in the worst epidemic of Ebola since its discovery four decades ago has climbed to 1 069, according to the WHO which said 56 people had died in two days. Nearly 2 000 have now been infected.

Canada's health minister Rona Ambrose said between 800 to 1 000 doses of a vaccine called VSV-EBOV, which has shown promise in animal research but never been tested on humans, would be distributed through the WHO.

Hard-hit nations were also anxiously awaiting a consignment of up to 1 000 doses of the barely tested drug ZMapp from the US, which has raised hopes of saving hundreds infected with the disease.

There is currently no available cure or vaccine for Ebola, which the WHO has declared a global public health emergency, and said it is ethical to try largely untested treatments "in the special circumstances of this Ebola outbreak".

Read more on:    who  |  liberia  |  guinea  |  sierra leone  |  nigeria  |  west africa  |  health  |  ebola

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