International aid organisations launched a series of emergency measures across West Africa on Thursday in a bid to contain one of the worst ever outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus, which is threatening every country in the region.
The tropical bug is thought to have killed more than 110 people in Guinea and Liberia since January, with suspected cases reported in Mali and Sierra Leone and aid workers warning that vital hygiene products could run out.
The Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO) announced emergency training for 70 people who would fan out across the Guinean capital Conakry to track people who have had close contact with Ebola patients.
The UN agency is also setting up a special alert and response operation centre within the Guinean health ministry and training staff at Guinea's main hospital and other health facilities.
The organisation has described West Africa's first Ebola outbreak as one of the most challenging since the virus emerged in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is also one of the most deadly, with 157 people infected and 101 deaths in Guinea alone.
The outbreak began in the impoverished country's southern forests, but has spread to Conakry, a sprawling port city on the Atlantic coast and home to two million people.
In neighbouring Liberia, there have been 21 cases, including 10 deaths.
While the WHO has not recommended any trade or travel restrictions, the region is braced against the epidemic, with Senegal closing its border with Guinea.
Action Against Hunger, a global aid group, warned of a looming shortage of sanitation stocks and said it had begun distributing chlorine and soap to families and schools in Guinea and setting up hand-washing facilities.
“We are checking the availability of chlorine in the country, because we could be running out in the coming hours. So we are going to have to get it from other countries,” Lucia Prieto, the charity's Guinea country director, said in a statement.
In Dakar, Unicef said it was working with WHO and other agencies to spread awareness by sending text messages and links to a specially written five-minute radio drama and television shows automatically to mobile phones across West Africa in numerous languages.
“Most of the people in this part of the world had never heard of Ebola before,” Guido Borghese, the organisation's principal adviser on child survival and development for the region, said in a statement.
“In this environment, unfounded fears and rumours spread quickly and widely. More than ever, it is crucial that families have both the means and the right information to protect themselves and prevent dangerous misunderstandings.”
The French Red Cross said in Paris it was deploying its first emergency response team to the epicentre of the outbreak in southeastern Guinea.
The team - made up of volunteers and a specialist in infectious diseases - will supervise and train 150 local Red Cross volunteers in disinfection and techniques to track down people who may have had contact with the infected.
The most severe strains of Ebola have had a 90-percent fatality rate, and there is no vaccine, cure or specific treatment.
The virus leads to haemorrhagic fever, causing muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in severe cases, organ failure and unstoppable bleeding.
It can be transmitted to humans who handle sick or dead wild animals - believed to be its original source - and between humans through direct contact with another's blood, faeces or sweat.
Ebola can be stemmed by identifying the sick and tracing those with whom they have had contact - more than 600 people in Guinea, according to the WHO - and applying infection-control measures in homes and clinics.
The chances of survival increase if patients are kept hydrated and treated for secondary infections, according to aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
MSF said it had reopened a treatment centre in Macenta in south-eastern Guinea which it was forced to close on Friday last week after locals pelted it with stones.
A crowd had gathered as rumours circulated in the town that the virus had been brought into Guinea by the aid group. - Sapa-AFP