West Africa’s Ebola-hit nations imposed stringent new rules on Thursday to tackle the world’s worst-ever outbreak of the tropical virus and agreed to launch a $100 million response plan at an emergency regional summit.
The leaders of Sierra Leone and Liberia have cancelled trips next week for a US-Africa summit in Washington and instead will meet in Guinea on Friday “to take the response to a new level,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
The three countries are struggling to contain an epidemic that has infected more than 1,300 people since the start of the year, hit major cities and sparked alarm over its possible spread to other nations.
The WHO raised the death toll by 57 to 729 on Thursday, announcing that 122 new cases had been detected between Thursday and Sunday last week.
“The Ebola virus disease poses an extraordinary challenge to our nation,” Sierra Leone’s leader Ernest Bai Koroma said in a televised address to the nation.
“Consequently… I hereby proclaim a state of public emergency to enable us to take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak.”
Koroma confirmed he had cancelled a trip to the summit of around 50 African leaders in Washington next week.
He announced a raft of measures as part of the state of emergency, including quarantining Ebola-hit areas and cancelling foreign trips by ministers.
Sierra Leone, which has seen 233 deaths, on Thursday buried medic Umar Khan, described by Koroma as a “national hero” who saved the lives of more than 100 Ebola patients before succumbing to the tropical bug.
Worst ever outbreak
The current outbreak of Ebola, which started at the beginning of this year, has killed 55 percent of those it has infected. The virus causes severe muscular pains, fever, headaches and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding.
Although it is not a particularly robust virus — it isn’t airborne and can be killed with soap and hot water — it is spread through contact with bodily fluids, meaning anyone in close quarters with a patient could be at risk.
Fears that it could spread to other continents through air travel have been growing, with European and Asian countries on alert alongside African countries outside the Ebola crisis zone.
Leading medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned the crisis would only get worse and said there was no overarching strategy to handle the outbreak.
Sierra Leone’s announcement comes a day after Liberia, which has seen 156 deaths, said it was shutting all schools and placing “non-essential” government workers on 30 days’ leave.
A Liberian government spokesman told AFP President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had also cancelled her trip to the US-Africa summit and would instead send a deputy.
Guinea’s President Alpha Conde said he would keep to his commitment to be in Washington from Sunday but did not say whether he would personally attend the Ebola meeting beforehand.
US Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse said it was temporarily withdrawing its non-essential staff from Liberia, citing regional “instability and ongoing security issues”.
The US Peace Corps announced Wednesday it was pulling hundreds of volunteers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Elsewhere in Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the continents largest transport hubs, said they had enhanced screening at border points and airports.
Medical staff ‘swamped’
US, German and French health authorities on Thursday issued a warning against travel to the three affected countries to stop the disease spreading to their shores.
“It is like fighting a forest fire. If you leave behind even one burning ember, one case undetected, it could reignite the epidemic,” said Tom Frieden, the chief of the US’s top public health body.
Hong Kong announced quarantine measures for suspected cases. One woman arriving from Africa with possible symptoms tested negative.
Australia, which has already warned against travel to the Ebola-hit countries, said it was well prepared in the unlikely event that the virus should reach its country.
Meanwhile, Japan and Thai health authorities said they had ordered all hospitals to monitor patients for any symptoms, particularly nationals or foreign tourists who had been in the outbreak area.
In Britain, where one person has tested negative for the disease, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was “a very serious threat”.
“The main challenge here, though, is that the health authorities just don’t have the infrastructure to cope. They’re overwhelmed,” British volunteer doctor Benjamin Black told the Metro newspaper.
Togo-based pan-African airline ASKY, which serves 20 destinations, has halted all flights to and from Liberia and Sierra Leone following the death of a passenger from the virus.
The 40-year-old man, who travelled from Liberia, died in Lagos on Friday in Nigeria’s first confirmed death from Ebola.
If the virus crosses borders for the first time by plane, it could lead to new flight restrictions, the world aviation agency said.