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Ebola sparks states of emergency across west Africa

A fast-spreading Ebola epidemic sparked states of emergency in overwhelmed west African nations on Thursday (Aug 7) as the death toll neared 1,000 and an elderly Spanish missionary was evacuated for treatment at home.

MONROVIA: Overwhelmed west African nations called states of emergency on Thursday (Aug 7) as the death toll from a fast-spreading Ebola epidemic neared 1,000, and an elderly Spanish missionary was evacuated for treatment at home.

Soldiers in Liberia's Grand Cape Mount province - one of the worst-affected - were restricting movement towards the capital Monrovia, where lawmakers gathered to ratify a 90-day state of emergency.

Nigeria's public sector doctors suspended a nearly five-week strike citing an outbreak of the deadly tropical disease which has killed two and infected five others in Lagos, creating fear that the virus is taking hold in Africa's most populous country.

Since breaking out earlier this year, Ebola has claimed 932 lives and infected more than 1,700 people across west Africa, according to the World Health Organisation. Ebola causes severe fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding. It is transmitted through close contact with bodily fluids, and people who live with or care for patients are most at risk.

As African nations struggled with the sheer scale of the epidemic, Spain flew home a 75-year-old Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, who contracted the disease while helping patients at a hospital in Monrovia. The missionary was the first patient in the outbreak to be evacuated to Europe for treatment.

A specially equipped military Airbus A310 brought him to Madrid's Torrejon air base along with a Spanish nun, Juliana Bonoha Bohe, who had worked at the same Liberian hospital but did not test positive for the haemorrhagic fever, the Spanish government said.

FAMILIES SEPARATED

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said Liberians should expect certain rights to be suspended as the country imposes "extraordinary measures" necessary for "the very survival of our state."

For Hawa Kollie, 35, that meant being blocked by soldiers from returning home to Monrovia after visiting her parents in the western town of Sinje. "They say I cannot cross and I left my kids at home," she told AFP by phone.

The restrictions were part of a necessary military operation to ensure that people from "infected zones" did not carry the virus into "non-infected zones," Information Minister Lewis Brown said.

In Sierra Leone, which has the most confirmed infections, 800 troops including 50 military nurses were sent to guard hospitals and clinics treating Ebola patients, an army spokesman said. The parliament was to meet to ratify a state of emergency declared last week.

NIGERIA STRIKE SUSPENDED

The outbreak in Nigeria has been minor compared to those in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But the seven confirmed cases in Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital and the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa, spurred the National Medical Association to call off a strike launched on July 1 over pay and conditions.

The densely-packed city of more than 20 million people has a poor healthcare system and officials say that if Lagos sees a rise in infections public hospitals will need to be operational in order to avert a catastrophe.

SPANISH PRIEST STABLE

Immediately after landing on Thursday morning, ambulances took Pajares and Bohe to Madrid's Carlos III Hospital. The priest was stable and showing no sign of bleeding while the nun appeared to be well, health officials said.

Two Americans who worked for Christian aid agencies in Liberia and were infected with Ebola while taking care of patients in Monrovia were taken back to the United States for treatment in recent days. They have shown signs of improvement after being given an experimental drug known as ZMapp, which is hard to produce on a large scale.

The vast majority of those infected face a far inferior level of healthcare at home. There is no proven treatment or cure for Ebola and the use of the experimental drug has sparked controversy as Ebola experts call for it to be made available to African victims.

'TOO SOON' FOR NEW DRUG?

US President Barack Obama said it was too soon to send experimental drugs for the treatment of Ebola to west Africa, however, urging officials instead to focus on building a "strong public infrastructure". "I think we have to let the science guide us. And I don't think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful," Obama said on Wednesday (Aug 6).

Nigeria's Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu has asked the United States about the possibility of getting the drug but Spain said it had not yet enquired about the serum.

"We do not know of the scientific evidence, the scientific basis, the results that this serum can provide," Antonio Alemany, director general of primary health care for the Madrid region, told a news conference. "Obviously, if the serum is effective then the Spanish government will make contact to be able to use this treatment."

The WHO is holding an emergency session behind closed doors in Geneva to decide whether to declare an international crisis. A decision is expected on Friday (Aug 8).

First discovered in 1976 and named after a river in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ebola has killed around two-thirds of those infected, with two outbreaks registering fatality rates approaching 90 per cent. The latest outbreak has a fatality rate of around 55 per cent.