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Health Officials Scramble to Contain Guinea Ebola Outbreak

Workers from Doctors Without Borders unload emergency medical supplies to deal with an Ebola outbreak in Conakry, Guinea, March 23, 2014.
Workers from Doctors Without Borders unload emergency medical supplies to deal with an Ebola outbreak in Conakry, Guinea, March 23, 2014.
Jennifer Lazuta
At least 59 people have died following an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Health officials are taking steps to contain the outbreak, including educating the public about ways to keep the virus from spreading.  

Guinea’s Ministry of Health says there have been at least 86 suspected cases of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the country’s southeastern forest region since Feb. 9.

Liberia’s Ministry of Health says five people, who crossed the border from affected areas in Guinea into Lofa County for treatment, are believed to have died from Ebola.

Health officials are also investigating suspected cases in Sierra Leone.

Plan International is a non-profit that promotes children's development. The group's regional director of disaster risk management is in Conakry to work on containment efforts.  

“People are scared. They are rightly scared, but so far, we are not seeing a mass movement of people leaving the area," said Roland Berehoudougou. "The key thing in the area is there is a lack of information. So now we are supporting the government, the minister of health, in providing mass communication - using the TV, local radio and also SMS - to inform people about the situation and also prevention measures they should take to protect themselves against the virus.”

Berehoudougou says schools are of particular concern because children come into such close contact with one another.

The WHO says Ebola is one of the most contagious viral diseases. It is spread through contact with the bodily fluids, such as sweat, blood and saliva, of an infected person or animal.

There is no vaccine or cure. Symptoms usually start with fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea. Some people experience bleeding through the eyes, ears, nose or mouth.  

The most recent outbreaks occurred in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012. Fifty-seven people died. In 2007, Ebola killed 187 people during an outbreak in the DRC.

The director of the WHO's Disease Prevention and Control Unit in Africa worked on such outbreaks.

“What we did, working with the health workers, we instituted strong infection prevention measures, which included the proper disposal of materials that may be soiled with bodily fluids, proper disposal of the corpse or the body of persons that have died from potentially suspected Ebola cases,” said Dr. Francis Kasolo.

He said the length of time to contain an outbreak can vary, but the sooner you start, the better.

This is the first human Ebola outbreak in Guinea and in West Africa.  Kasolo said this made it harder to identify the virus as Ebola.  Ebola causes viral hemorrhagic fever, but so do several other illnesses common to the region, including lassa fever.

Kasolo said health workers in Guinea just are not as familiar with the disease.

“Our own thinking is that the alert level amongst the health workers and the community is not as high as, for instance, in Uganda and DRC, where Ebola occurs mostly every second or third year," he said. "So it’s a question of people reporting a suspicious or unusual illness, but because they are not familiar with that, it does take a little while for them to ... finally think of Ebola.”

Aid organizations are now supplying protective gear to health workers, as well as other medical supplies and medications to ease the symptoms of infected people.

Doctors Without Borders has set up isolation units in southern Guinea to treat suspected cases.

The ministries of health in Guinea and Liberia say public information campaigns are underway to educate people about the symptoms of Ebola and the modes of transmission.

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