Ebola outbreak: We’re heading towards a catastrophe, warns top medic

The health chief leading the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has warned it was spiralling out of control towards a “catastrophic” epidemic that could engulf the region.

Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, said the response to the disease had been “woefully inadequate” and it was “moving faster than our efforts to control it”.

Her warnings – the starkest to date – were delivered to the leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia as they held a crisis summit to discuss how to curb the crisis, which has now claimed at least 729 lives.

“If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries,” Dr Chan said, according to a transcript seen by the Reuters news agency of her remarks to the summit in the Guinean capital, Conakry.

“This meeting must mark a turning point in the outbreak response.”

Meanwhile, two Ebola-infected American aid workers, Dr Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol, were expected to arrive in the US for treatment in high-security intensive care wards.

Both are believed to be in “stable but grave” condition after contracting the disease in Liberia. It will be the first time an Ebola sufferer has been treated in the US.

Dr Chan’s comments came amid growing signs of panic in the affected nations, where the fight against the disease has been hampered by lack of public health education and a widespread belief that it is caused by witchcraft.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, said there was now fear and panic across the country, adding: “There are dead bodies all over the place and they now know that it’s real. They know that it’s deadly and they are now beginning to respond.”

She said some Liberians were continuing to keep infected patients at home or take them to traditional healers, fearing wrongly that bringing them to the specialist treatment clinics would increase their chances of catching the disease.

On Wednesday, Sierra Leone ordered its security forces to take health officials on house-to-house searches to find anyone suspected of harbouring an Ebola sufferer, despite fears such a robust approach could alienate the public.

In a further sign of disagreement over how to respond to the outbreak, the leader of the Ebola task force in Guinea said moves by neighbouring Liberia to shut all schools to contain the disease could prove counter productive.

“When children are not supervised, they can go anywhere and make the problem worse,” said Aboubacar Sidiki Diakita. “Currently, some measures taken by our neighbours could make the fight against Ebola even harder.”

Nigerian officials also reported an outbreak of panic in the state of Anambra when it was discovered that a local man had died while visiting Liberia.

There was no immediate evidence that he had caught Ebola, but such was the anxiety that the authorities took the precaution of quarantining his body, which had been repatriated by his relatives over the weekend.

The mounting sense of unease came as Dubai’s Emirates airline became the first global carrier to announce it was suspending flights to the stricken area.

The United States, Germany and France also issued warnings against travel to the three African countries.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation said it was launching a $100m (£60m) drive to recruit several hundred additional staff to combat the west African crisis.

Health experts say since it is the first outbreak of its kind in the region, local officials have no practical experience in how to combat it.

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.