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Ebola "moving faster" than MSF can handle

The Ebola crisis in west Africa is outstripping the ability of aid organisations to stem the epidemic, the head of international medical charity MSF said, likening the situation to a war.

GENEVA: The Ebola outbreak that has already claimed more than 1,000 lives in west Africa is moving faster than aid organisations can handle, the medical charity MSF said on Friday (Aug 15). The warning came just a day the World Health Organization said the scale of the epidemic had been vastly underestimated and that "extraordinary measures" were needed to contain the killer disease.

The UN health agency said the death toll from the worst outbreak of the disease in four decades had now climbed to 1,069 in four afflicted countries, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

"It is deteriorating faster, and moving faster, than we can respond to," MSF (Doctors Without Borders) chief Joanne Liu told reporters in Geneva, saying it could take six months to get the upper hand. "It is like wartime," she said a day after returning from the region where she met political leaders and visited clinics. 

WHO said Thursday it was coordinating "a massive scaling up of the international response" to the epidemic. "Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak," it said.

The latest epidemic erupted in the forested zone straddling the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and later spread to Nigeria. WHO declared a global health emergency last week - far too late, according to MSF, which months ago warned that the outbreak was out of control.

Liu said while Guinea was the initial epicentre of the disease, the pace there has slowed, with concerns now focused on the other countries. "If we don't stabilise Liberia, we'll never stabilise the region," Liu said.

Concerns have also centred on the Nigerian cases, which are in Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's largest city. "Right now we have no past experience with in urban setting," said Liu.


As countries around the world stepped up measures to contain the disease, the International Olympics Committee said athletes from Ebola-hit countries have been barred from competing in pool events and combat sports at the Youth Olympics opening in China on Saturday.

The decision, which affects three unidentified athletes, was made "with regard to ensuring the safety of all those participating" in the Games in the city of Nanjing, the IOC and Chinese organisers said in a joint statement.

No cure or vaccine is currently available for Ebola, which the WHO has declared a global public health emergency. It has also authorised the use of largely untested treatments in efforts to combat the disease.

Hard-hit nations are awaiting consignments of up to 1,000 doses of the barely tested drug ZMapp from the United States, which has raised hopes of saving hundreds. Canada says between 800 and 1,000 doses of a vaccine called VSV-EBOV, which has shown promise in animal research but never been tested on humans, would also be distributed through the WHO.

MSF's Liu warned against focusing on drugs. "In the short term, they're not going to help that much, because we don't have many drugs available. We need to a get a reality check on how this could impact the curve of the epidemic," she said.

The last days of an Ebola victim can be grim, with the most severe cases succumbing to agonising muscular pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and catastrophic haemorrhaging described as "bleeding out" as their organs break down.

The cost of tackling the virus is also threatening to exact a severe economic toll on the already impoverished west African nations hit by the epidemic. In Nigeria, in particular, a more serious outbreak could severely disrupt its oil and gas industry if international companies are forced to evacuate staff and shut local operations, rating agency Moody's warned.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama called the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone to express solidarity with the stricken countries. The calls came as the US State Department ordered families of its diplomats in Sierra Leone to leave to prevent the risk of exposure.


Sierra Leone's chief medical officer Brima Kargbo this week spoke of the risks facing health workers fighting the epidemic, which has killed 32 nurses since May as well as an eminent doctor, of a total of more than 330 victims.

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

South Africa has stepped in to help by sending a mobile laboratory for Freetown to ease the problem of having to send blood samples elsewhere for analysis.

In Liberia, which has recorded more than 300 deaths, work began on expanding its Ebola treatment centre in Monrovia - one of only two such clinics in the country of 4.2 million. Liberia has already spent US$12 million (S$15 million) tackling the outbreak between April and June alone.

Across the region, increasingly draconian restrictions have been put in place. Guinea, where at least 377 people have died, declared a health emergency on Wednesday and ordered strict controls at border points and a ban on moving bodies from one town to another.

A number of airlines have cancelled flights in and out of west Africa, while Gambia became the latest country to suspend flights from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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