CONAKRY Health officials fighting an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea on Sunday dispatched specialized medical equipment, imposed restrictions on funerals and sought to contain panic to prevent the fever from spreading.
There have been 29 confirmed deaths from the hemorrhagic fever among 59 people killed by a mysterious illness in southeastern Guinea since early February, international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said.
U.N. health officials have expressed concern that the disease, which has a fatality rate of 90 percent and has not been recorded in the West African state before, may spread to Sierra Leone after cases showing similar symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting and bleeding, were reported there.
At least five of the dead in Guinea have been medical officials, including the head of the regional hospital in Macenta, at the heart of the crisis, some 800 km (500 miles) from Guinea's capital Conakry.
"We must increase the levels of protection for all those looking after the patients by providing kits for hospital personnel," said government spokesman Damantang Albert Camara.
MSF has flown tons of medicine, isolation units and protection kits for health workers to Guinea. On Sunday they began trucking the equipment to the southeast.
A health official working in the affected region said that suspected Ebola cases were being isolated and monitored outside hospitals where other patients were being treated.
"CLEARLY SOME PANIC"
Camara said authorities were trying inform people in the area on steps they could take to avoid spreading the disease.
Sakoba Keita, head of the preventative diseases department in Guinea's ministry of health, said that residents had been banned from burying their dead if they had shown any symptoms that might link them to the fever.
Around 80 people have fallen ill with fever-like symptoms since February 9. At least 59 of these have subsequently died.
Gemma Dominguez, head of MSF-Switzerland in Guinea, told Reuters on Sunday that the medical group was aware of 29 confirmed deaths from Ebola among these.
There have not been any confirmed cases in Conakry but news of the disease was unnerving residents.
"There is clearly some panic," Dominguez said.
Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with infected animals including chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines, according to the WHO.
Guinea is rich in minerals but remains one of the least developed nations on earth, having been crippled by decades of corruption and political instability.
Its health system is stretched at the best of times.
"We need to find a solution now as all is not well in Guinea ... We don't know this disease. We need to find a solution before it arrives in Conakry, otherwise it would not be good," said Mohamed Diaby, a resident of the sprawling, rubbish-strewn seaside capital.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Tom Heneghan)