Health officials rushed Monday to contain the deadly Ebola virus in Guinea, where at least 59 people are believed to have died from an outbreak of the virus that can cause severe internal bleeding.
Those suspected of exposure to the virus were being quarantined and public health announcements urged people to avoid direct body contact with those infected.
The Ebola virus leads to severe hemorrhagic fever in its victims and has no vaccine or specific treatment. The new cases in Guinea mark the first time in 20 years that an outbreak of the virus has been reported in West Africa.
Already health workers fear it could overtax the deeply impoverished country with severely limited medical facilities.
“The Ebola fever is one of the most virulent diseases known to mankind with a fatality rate up to 90 percent,” said Ibrahima Toure, Guinea’s country director for the aid group Plan International.
“Communities in the affected region stretch across the borders and people move freely within this area. This poses a serious risk of the epidemic becoming widespread with devastating consequences,” he said.
The World Health Organization said it is dispatching experts to help ministry officials in Guinea.
Authorities in the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia say they are on high alert, though no confirmed cases had been reported there as of Monday.
In Guinea, efforts were underway to keep the virus from reaching the capital of Conakry, home to some 3 million people. Panic erupted Sunday amid reports that two of the deaths had occurred in the capital. However, on Monday authorities said that those cases were only under investigation and later proved not to be positive for the virus.
As the government issued messages on state radio and television urging people to wash their hands and avoid contact with sick people, medical officials said supplies of chlorine and bleach were running out at stores.
“I usually take a taxi to get to work but in order to avoid contact with strangers, I’m going to walk instead, said Touka Mara, a teacher in Conakry.
Authorities said that goods in Conakry that had been imported from the affected part of the southeast were being quarantined as a precautionary measure.
Ebola, which manifests itself as a hemorrhagic fever, is highly infectious and kills quickly. WHO said the cases in Guinea already had a 59 percent fatality ratio.
It was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named for the river where it was recognized. Ebola outbreaks were reported in Congo and Uganda in 2012.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. During communal funerals, for example, when the bereaved come into contact with an Ebola victim, the virus can be contracted, health officials said.