Guinea officials race to contain Ebola outbreak as death toll rises

Health officials in Guinea are racing to contain a new outbreak of Ebola that has killed at least four people and raised concerns across west Africa, which previously suffered the worst from the virus.

On Monday morning, a fourth victim died in Guinea and four others are being treated in an isolation centre, suffering vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding. At least seven of the people who contracted the virus attended the funeral of a nurse in Goueke, a town near the Liberian border, on 1 February the government said on Sunday.

“All measures are being taken to stem this epidemic as soon as possible,” Guinea’s health ministry said, declaring an outbreak of the virus last seen in the region in 2016 – at the end of a traumatic three-year outbreak, which infected more than 28,000 people and caused 11,000 deaths in west Africa.

The epidemic spread from Guinea to Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries in the region, sparking extensive and vital prevention, treatment and surveillance systems in several countries, which health officials said had been immediately alerted to contain the outbreak in Guinea. An intensive test-and-trace campaign has begun in Goueke and neighbouring towns.

Vaccinations and treatments that have been developed in recent years were being quickly deployed to Guinea and were on standby in neighbouring Liberia and other west African countries, the World Health Organization said, adding to hope that an outbreak could be contained.

“There is real concern and a challenge to maintain and reinforce Guinea’s health systems,” said Georges Ki-Zerbo, the head of the WHO mission in Guinea, “but also there is a lot of reinforcement taking place and regional cooperation. On the ground, there are dozens of respondents already mobilised.”

The spectre of an Ebola outbreak emerging as countries battled with Covid-19 was also an acute concern Ki-Zerbo said, as resources were stretched. In some places the response to the pandemic was also a strength. “The alert and vigilance brought by Covid should also help with Ebola, which is easier to detect,” he said.

Yet an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while the country battles to contain coronavirus cases as conflict intensifies, has caused alarm. Four cases of Ebola have been detected, with efforts to address the outbreak hamstrung by conflict between armed groups. Kate Moger, an regional official at the International Rescue Committee, said the Ebola cases were a disaster for communities in northern DRC. “They have faced decades of violence by armed groups and have now, between Ebola and Covid-19, been faced with disease outbreaks for almost three straight years.”

Following the cases in Guinea, health officials in West Africa expressed a mixture of growing concern but also some confidence that a major outbreak could be averted. Significant progress had been achieved in improving the capabilities of health systems in small, low income countries like Guinea in west Africa to deal with virus outbreaks like Ebola, Lassa fever, yellow fever and most recently Covid-19, Ki-Zerbo said.

On Sunday, Liberia, which shares a porous border with Guinea, announced its health systems would be on alert for potential cases.

Heounohu Romello Hessou, a doctor and senior official in the country’s Covid-19 response, worked in Liberia during its Ebola outbreak and said measures had rapidly begun since the first cases were announced in Guinea and an intensive test-and-trace system was under way in nearby Liberian border towns.

“Right now the entire public health institute, essentially birthed from the Ebola outbreak, are working around the clock, sending fact-finding teams, putting out public health measures in those towns bordering Guinea,” he said.

“Ring vaccinations” were being implemented, where vaccines to prevent and treat Ebola, would be administered to all known contacts of those infected, he said, with the capacity for widespread testing available.