Health officials in Guinea are battling to contain west Africa’s first outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus as neighbouring Liberia reported its first suspected victims and a traveller returning to Canada was hospitalised with suspicious symptoms.
At least 59 people are known to have died in Guinea’s southern forests and there are six suspected cases in Liberia which, if confirmed, would mark the first spread of the highly contagious pathogen into another country.
And there are fears the virus may have crossed continents, with a man returning to Canada from Liberia seriously ill in hospital after experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus, health officials said.
“As of this morning six cases have been reported of which five have already died – four female adults and one male child. One of the suspected cases, a female child, is under treatment,” Liberian Health Minister Walter Gwenigale said in a statement.
“The team is already investigating the situation, tracing contacts, collecting blood samples and sensitising local health authorities on the disease,” he added.
Gwenigale did not specify the victims’ nationalities, but Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said they were Liberian residents who had attended funerals in the Ebola-hit area of Guinea, which has strong “family ties” with northern Liberia.
“People come to attend funerals on one side and unfortunately they unwittingly get infected and then return home,” Brussels-based MSF emergency co-ordinator Marie-Christine Ferir told AFP.
The local health ministry in Canada’s Saskatchewan province said a man had been placed in solitary confinement, with his family in quarantine, pending expected results on Tuesday of tests.
“All we know at this point is that we have a person who is critically ill who travelled from a country where these diseases occur,” Denise Werker, joint director of health in Saskatchewan, in western Canada, said.
To date, no treatment or vaccine is available for the Ebola pathogen, which kills between 25 and 90 per cent of those who fall sick, depending on the strain of the virus, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Transmission to humans can come from wild animals, or from direct contact from another human’s blood, faeces or sweat, or by sexual contact and the unprotected handling of contaminated corpses.
The tropical virus – described in some health publications as a “molecular shark” – can fell its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea – in some cases shutting down organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.