An outbreak of Ebola haemorrhagic fever that doctors yesterday described as unprecedented has spread to three countries in West Africa and threatens to become one of the deadliest in years.
At least 82 people have already died in Guinea and Liberia and another 56 patients are suspected to be carrying the virus, including in Sierra Leone.
Many others could be infected and not yet know it because Ebola can take up to three weeks to show symptoms, before killing very quickly from uncontrollable internal and external bleeding. Nine in 10 of those infected die.
The areas where it has so far been found include Conakry, Guinea's capital, with two million inhabitants, and heavily populated parts of the country's borderlands with Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The epidemic was unprecedented and "of a magnitude never before seen" in terms of its spread across Guinea and its neighbours, said Mariano Lugli, project co-ordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Conakry. "MSF has intervened in almost all reported Ebola outbreaks in recent years, but they were much more geographically contained and involved more remote locations.
This geographical spread is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organisations working to control the epidemic."
It is the first outbreak in West Africa for close to 20 years and the first time that Ebola has been confirmed to have crossed international borders. Guinea has closed all of its borders, but its people are beginning to complain at their Government's lack of effective action to stop an outbreak now traced back to January. "The Government should block the road between the forest region and the other part of Guinea," said Amadou Sow, a doctor in Conakry.
Watch: Guinea battles Ebola
Patients in Conakry's main hospital were being isolated but those in other facilities across the country were being treated in what MSF called "non-optimal conditions". Isolating infected people is the only way to stop the spread of the virus, which has no vaccine and no cure.