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Ebola outbreak empties West African hotels

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(Bloomberg) — Ibrahima Capi Camara’s phone at the Grand Hotel de L’Independence in Guinea’s capital hasn’t stopped ringing since an Ebola outbreak began last month, for all the wrong reasons.

“At least 80 percent of our reservations have been canceled,” Camara, general manager of the 217-room hotel in the heart of Conakry, said Tuesday. “Clients are scared to come because of Ebola.”

West Africa is fighting to contain the spread of the disease that has claimed the lives of 111 people in Guinea and Liberia, the worst outbreak in seven years, and kills as many as nine out of 10 people who contract it. There’s no cure or vaccine for the hemorrhagic fever that will probably continue to spread in the region for a few more months, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Measures such as closing borders and restricting travel “don’t make sense,” according to the WHO, which says avoiding close contact with patients will help contain the spread of the disease. That hasn’t stopped Senegal from shutting a border or Ivory Coast from barring buses from Liberia and Guinea. Rio de Janeiro-based Vale SA, the world’s biggest iron-ore producer, sent foreign workers in Guinea back to their homes last week.

“The extreme fear it provokes in populations means that local and regional businesses are already seeing disruption to operations,” Charles Laurie, head of Africa research at Bath, England-based risk consultant Maplecroft, said in an e-mail. “Regional trade is at risk of grinding to a halt.”

The disease will curb economic growth in Liberia by slowing cross-border commerce, reducing customs revenue and investment, Finance Minister Amara Konneh said in an interview yesterday. Gross domestic product will expand 6.8 percent this year, slower than the 8.7 percent last year, he said.

Mohamed Cherif Abdallah, head of the Organized Group of Businessmen in Conakry, said the outbreak is hurting the economy.

“Guinean business owners are losing money because of this,” he said by phone yesterday. “The disease has halted economic activity in the country’s interior, and many foreigners are reluctant to come now.”

The Guinean region and towns of Gueckedou and Macenta where Ebola was first detected last month produces most of the fruit and vegetables sold in the capital.

“People claim that our bananas contain Ebola because they come from Gueckedou,” Marie Dore, a market vendor in Conakry, said in an interview. “For the past two weeks, I’ve had to throw all my bananas away. Business is dwindling.”

Inadequate care

Inadequate health care and a shortage of doctors make fighting the disease more difficult.

In Guinea, residents of a town with reported cases attacked a center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, blaming its staff for spreading the disease. The Swiss-based aid group reopened the facility in Macenta yesterday, Corinne Benazech, project manager in Guinea, said in an e-mailed statement.

Those caring for Ebola patients should wear gloves and other protective gear, according to the WHO. The disease has an incubation period of two to 21 days. Suspected cases in Mali, Sierra Leone and Ghana have so far proved negative.

It’s the first time the disease, identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, has caused deaths in west Africa. The virus is transmitted to people through blood and other secretions of wild animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, bats and porcupines, according to the WHO. Humans pass the virus to each other through contact with blood and other body fluids. The disease causes high fever, diarrhea and vomiting, and can lead to internal bleeding.

Travelers screened

Health officials in Guinea, Liberia and Senegal have appeared on national television to create awareness about the disease. Senegalese Health Minister Awa Marie Coll Seck visited ports and the main international airport to assess measures set up to screen incoming travelers, according to a statement from her office.

In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf praised lawmakers for not closing the border with Guinea. The nation’s health minister urged Liberians to avoid shaking hands, kissing or having sex with anyone who may have the disease. Guinea has banned the sale and consumption of bats and warned against eating rats and monkeys.

“Governments are obviously trying to contain the actual spread of the virus, but they are also seeking to calm people,” Maplecroft’s Laurie said.

The French Embassy in Conakry has issued an advisory on its website against travel to the affected areas in the forest region.

Minibuses idle

Minibuses transporting passengers from Guinea’s capital to Gueckedou and Macenta are standing idle at the city’s main bus station, said Souleymane Balde, a transport union official.

“We don’t have any passengers since Ebola was declared, whereas before, we could load three to four cars a day,” he said by phone from Conakry.

The transportation industry in Senegal has also been affected by Ebola, even though the disease hasn’t yet spread to Guinea’s northern neighbor. Drivers of hundreds of trucks have been blocked from crossing into Guinea since the Senegalese government closed the border on March 29.

“Many cars and trucks that stopped here last week have now started to turn back as they got tired of waiting,” Ousmane Ba, a truck driver carrying canned tomatoes, sugar and butane gas, said by phone from the Senegalese village of Kalifourou. “It’s an economic loss for many of my colleagues.”

Lawmakers in Liberia voted to ban all hunting of wild animals that may carry Ebola. Hoping to avoid panic, Guinea Farming Minister Thierno Ousmane Diallo told state television that cattle and goats are still fit for consumption.

That message hasn’t prevented customers from skipping meat at butcher Aliou Diallo’s stall at Yimbaya market in Conakry.

“People don’t understand and refuse to buy butcher’s meat,” he said.

–With assistance from Elise Zoker in Monrovia and Kasia Klimasinska in Washington.

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