The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning West African nations neighboring those hit by the Ebola epidemic to prepare for the possible arrival of travelers infected with the deadly virus.
At a news conference in Geneva on Friday, WHO medical officer Dr. Pierre Formenty said health officials in Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Guinea Bissau should be on guard.
"People are just travelling by roads, and roads exist in all West Africa, he said. "There are roads going to Bamako, going to Abidjan, going to Dakar. And of course there is some control but we all know that all these borders are quite porous in fact, so we have to be careful there and we need to be prepared, we need to be prepared."
Nearly 400 people have died since Ebola emerged again in February, making it the deadliest outbreak of the virus in the region.
Most of the infections have been in Guinea. But, health officials in Liberia and Sierra Leone are also dealing with cases of the virus, which appears to be spreading.
Formenty said the WHO is not considering recommending travel restrictions. He said such measures would be too drastic and said the U.N. agency favors greater dialogue with affected family members and villages.
"If we try to institute measures that are going to be seen as restrictive by the population, we are going in fact to fuel the outbreak, to fuel the transmission and to spread the disease,'' he said.
A doctor working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone said the public's lack of understanding about the disease Is contributing to its rapid spread. The head of the Lassa Fever Program, Shek Moar Khan, said it is difficult to get villagers in the affected regions to change their burial practices, which facilitate the spread of the virus.
"Don't forget, by the time people are dead with the Ebola, they are more infectious than all. So if they take care of their burial on their own, ten more will be infected,'' said Khan.
On Friday, Sierra Leone warned it is a serious crime to shelter people infected with the Ebola virus. The health ministry said a number of infected patients had discharged themselves from a hospital in the southern Kenema district, and had apparently gone into hiding.
On July 2, WHO will convene a meeting of health ministers from 11 countries to explore ways to prevent the virus from spreading.
Ebola is characterized by fever, vomiting, diarrhea and, in many cases, internal and external bleeding. There is no vaccine or cure.