“We want other countries in West Africa to be ready — bordering countries, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Guinea Bissau — to prepare themselves in case people affected with the disease may be also travelling,” WHO medical officer Dr Pierre Formenty told a briefing in Geneva.
Despite efforts by national health authorities and international aid organisations to contain the spread of Ebola, the WHO has recorded some 635 infections, including 399 deaths, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia since the outbreak began in February.
The outbreak is already the deadliest since Ebola first emerged in central Africa in 1976, and the number of infections continues to rise.
Dr Formenty said it was difficult to stop the spread of the virus in forested areas of the three countries already affected by the epidemic and to change people’s burial practices which facilitate its transmission.
He said the UN health agency is not considering recommending travel or trade restrictions on the three countries, however.
“This is not out of hand,” Dr Formenty said.
WHO’s regional director for Africa, Luis Sambo, called for drastic action to halt what he said has turned into a cross-border crisis.
“This is no longer a country specific outbreak but a sub-regional crisis that requires firm action by governments and partners,” Mr Sambo said in a statement.
He added: “WHO is gravely concerned by the on-going cross-border transmission into neighbouring countries as well as the potential for further international spread.”
In response to the worsening crisis, the WHO said it will convene a special meeting of health ministers from some 11 countries in Accra, Ghana, on July 2 and July 3 to develop a comprehensive inter-country response plan.
Ebola — with a fatality rate of up to 90%, no vaccine and no known cure — has not previously occurred in the West Africa region.
People there have become frightened of health facilities, blaming them for importing and spreading the virus.
The Ebola virus initially causes raging fever, headaches, muscle pain, conjunctivitis, and weakness, before moving into more severe phases with vomiting, diarrhoea, and internal and external haemorrhaging.
“There is an urgent need to intensify response efforts; to promote cross- border collaboration and information sharing of suspected cases and contacts... and to mobilise all sectors of the community,” Mr Sambo said.
“This is the only way that the outbreak will be effectively addressed.”
This week, Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that a lack of understanding has meant people continue to prepare corpses and attend funerals of victims, leaving them vulnerable to a disease transmitted by touching victims or via bodily fluids.
MSF accused civil society groups, governments and religious authorities of failing to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic, resulting in few prominent figures promoting the fight against the disease.