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West African countries on high alert after deadly Ebola resurgence in Guinea

A Liberian man reads a newspaper reporting on the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Guinea at a sidewalk newsstand in Monrovia, Liberia, 16 February 2021.( Source: Keystone)

Five years after ridding the country of the deadly disease, Guinea on Sunday declared an Ebola virus outbreak in one of its regions. The new cases come a week after a separate outbreak was confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Officials said they were moving quickly to curb the spread.

Guinean health authorities declared an outbreak of Ebola in its N'Zerekore district after seven confirmed cases of the disease and at least three deaths.

“It's a huge concern to see the resurgence of Ebola in Guinea, a country which has already suffered so much from the disease”, World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said.

The infamous 2013-2016 epidemic, which was traced back to a small in the remote forested region of Gueckedou in Guinea, resulted in more than 28,600 cases and cost over 11,300 lives making it the deadliest since the virus was first discovered in 1976.

Although the exact origin of the new outbreak is unknown, all seven confirmed cases attended the funeral of a nurse on 1 funeral and showed symptoms, such as vomiting and bleeding. At least three of them have since died.

Since then Guinea has recorded up to 10 Ebola cases and five deaths, whilst the health ministry identified 115 contacts in N'zerekore and 10 in the capital city, Conakry.

In a Geneva briefing on Tuesday the WHO asked six African countries to be on alert for possible Ebola infections. Speaking at this briefing Dr Margaret Harris told reporters "We have already alerted the six countries around, including of course Sierra Leone and Liberia, and they are moving very fast to prepare and be ready and to look for any potential infection."

The town in N'Zerekore, Gouéké, is close to borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire, raising concerns of a potential regional spread.

These neighboring countries have launched precautionary plans to stop the spread of the virus by reinforcing border controls, fearing it would have crippling effects on already overwhelmed health systems due to Covid-19.

President of Liberia's, George Weah, called upon health authorities in the country to “immediately engage communities in towns and villages bordering Guinea and increase anti-Ebola measures.”

A tropical fever transmitted to humans from wild animals can cause severe bleeding and organ failure and is spread through contact with bodily fluids.

Last week in the DRC, more than two months after the end of the last outbreak, authorities also reported a reappearance of EVD. So far, the DRC has confirmed its latest cases are not linked to a new Ebola variant however this represents the tenth resurgence of the outbreak, making it the second largest on record that caused more than 2,200 deaths in 2018-2020.

Dr Harris said health authorities had identified close to 300 Ebola contacts in the Congo outbreak and around 109 in Guinea.

Samples of the EVD sent to the Institut Pasteur in Senegal from both Congo and Guinea are undergoing full genome sequencing to learn more about the origins of the outbreaks.

"We don't know if this is down to Ebola persisting in the human population or if it's simply moving again from the animal population but the genetic sequencing that's ongoing will help with that information" Harris said.

The West African EVD devastation spurred the development of vaccines and treatments greatly improving containment tactics and survival rates. In January, the WHO announced that it would develop an emergency stockpile of 500,000 doses to clamp down on future outbreaks, as at the time of the announcement there were only 7,000 available.

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New Ebola outbreak declared in Guinea (Photo: WHO/Junior D. Kannah)

Harris added the considerable funds would be needed to help step up regional responses, including for preparedness measures in neighboring countries. UN emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock on Tuesday announced an initial rapid allocation of $ 15m from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) in response to the outbreaks in Guinea and the DRC.

“Breaking the chain of transmission is the priority so I'm releasing rapid funding for community engagement, infection prevention and control, and vaccination” said Lowcock.

With WHO staff already on the ground infection prevention will be ramped up as well as additional support for Guinea to procure the Ebola vaccine which has proven instrumental in controlling outbreaks in the DRC.

“WHO is supporting the authorities to set up testing, contact-tracing and treatment structure to bring the overall response to full speed,” Dr Moeti said.

When asked about what it would be like if a person with Ebola got Covid-19, Harris said it was a real possibility and all actions must be taken to prevent the transmission of both these diseases.

Guinea's Health Minister Remy Lamah shares these concerns stating: "what worries us the most is the dangerousness of the disease given what we experienced five years ago… We do not want to relive such a situation."