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Ebola spreads to city of 1.6 million

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(Bloomberg) — Guinea’s health ministry reported five suspected cases of Ebola in the capital, Conakry, as the death toll from the biggest outbreak of the infectious disease in seven years increased to 66.

At least 15 suspected cases of the virus were registered yesterday, including those in Conakry, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Authorities have been notified of a total of 103 suspected cases, and there has been one death in the capital, the ministry said. The spread to Conakry, a city of 1.6 million people, represents a “new dynamic” in the outbreak, though the situation is “extremely fluid,” Gregory Hartl, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman, said at a briefing in Geneva today.

“Local health authorities will report any number of syndromic cases that resemble Ebola but turn out not to be, so we don’t expect all these cases to end up confirmed,” Hartl said. “On the other hand, there are probably cases out there which we don’t know of yet.”

The outbreak involves the Zaire strain of Ebola, the most common and deadly of the five known varieties, with a mortality rate of as much as 90 percent. The virus is transmitted through contact with blood or bodily fluids of an infected person or animal, according to the WHO. Guinea has forbidden the sale and consumption of bats, which may serve as natural reservoirs of the virus, and warned against eating rats and monkeys in its effort to keep the illness from spreading.

In the past, health experts say, most Ebola outbreaks have ended without spreading far, because the patients got very sick very quickly and were not able to travel.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has four people in Guinea and is sending 15 more in an effort to find cases that haven’t been reported, Amanda McClelland, a spokeswoman, said at the briefing in Geneva today.

“The biggest impact of these types of epidemics is really the fear and stigma that’s created,” McClelland said. “We see a number of people hiding, not going to isolation centers, not reporting deaths, rumors starting about government conspiracies.”

A family in Guinea contracted the virus after attending a funeral of a relative who died of the disease, Radio Television Guinenne reported, citing the head of the epidemics prevention division at the health ministry.

The disease may have spread from Guinea to neighboring Liberia. Five people are suspected to have died from the illness in Lofa county in northern Liberia, the West African nation’s chief medical officer said March 24.

Liberian authorities have sent specimens collected from the five people to scientists outside the country for analysis, Information Minister Lewis Brown told reporters at a briefing yesterday in the capital, Monrovia.

Sierra Leone, which shares borders with Guinea and Liberia, has established a surveillance team to collect and test samples from people who may have died from the disease, Brima Kargbo, the country’s chief medical officer, said in a phone interview today from the capital, Freetown. The ministry is also taking steps to raise awareness about the risk factors of contracting the disease, he said.

In Mali, to the north of Guinea, a thermal camera was installed at the airport to help detect Ebola cases, according to L’Essor, a state-owned newspaper. Medical teams are on standby and workers have been sent to villages near the Guinea border, the newspaper reported, citing a health official.

Ebola was first identified in 1976 in Congo and Sudan, when two different strains of the virus killed 431 of the 602 people infected. Recent outbreaks have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in 2012, according to the WHO.

–With assistance from Silas Gbandia in Freetown and Elise Zoker in Monrovia.

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