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Monrovia - The United Nations said on Tuesday the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa was causing food shortages in one of the world's poorest regions and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warned the disease was threatening the stability of stricken countries and their neighbours.
Doctors in Liberia were out on strike as they struggled to cope with the worst outbreak of Ebola on record, while the global aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said 800 more beds for Ebola patients were urgently needed in the Liberian capital Monrovia alone, while in Sierra Leone highly infectious bodies were rotting in the streets.
Governments and aid organisations have scrambled to contain the disease, which according to the World Health organisation (WHO) has killed more than 1 500 in West Africa since March.
In an address to United Nations member states, MSF President Joanne Liu said: “Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it.” She said aid charities and West African governments did not have the capacity to stem the outbreak and needed intervention by foreign states.
Slamming what she called “a global coalition of inaction”, Liu called for the urgent dispatch of field hospitals with isolation wards and mobile medical laboratories.
MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said biological disaster response teams were needed to support West Africa's buckling healthcare systems.
There are no approved Ebola vaccines or treatments, but as hospitals and Ebola treatment Centres battled to contain the disease and tend to the sick and dying, the US Department of Health and Human Services said a federal contract worth up to $42.3 million would help accelerate testing of an experimental Ebola virus treatment being developed by privately held Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.
The agency said in a statement that Mapp, based in San Diego, California, would manufacture a small amount of its ZMapp drug, which uses antibodies manufactured in tobacco plants, for early stage safety studies and animal studies needed to prove its effectiveness and safety in people.
ZMapp is one of several treatments for Ebola under development. The drug, although never tested in humans, gained attention this summer when two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia were cured after receiving it. Their physicians said they did not know if the drug helped.
Human safety trials are due to begin this week on a vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline and later this year on one from NewLink Genetics Corporation.
The Ebola epidemic in West Africa could infect more than 20 000 people and spread to more countries, the World Health organisation warned last week. With a fatality rate of 52 percent, the death toll stood at 1 552 as of August 26.
Cases of Ebola have been reported in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The cases in Congo, which include 31 deaths, are thought to be a separate outbreak and not related to the West African cases.
US missionary organisation SIM USA said on Tuesday that an American doctor treating obstetrics patients at the ELWA hospital in Monrovia had tested positive for Ebola. The doctor, who was not working in the hospital's Ebola treatment centre, was in an isolation ward at the hospital and responding well so far, SIM said on its website.
At Monrovia's John F. Kennedy Medical Centre (JFK) scores of staff went on strike to protest against working conditions and unpaid bonuses. Amid shortages of equipment and trained staff, more than 120 health-care workers have died in West Africa in the Ebola outbreak.
“Health workers have died (fighting Ebola), including medical doctors at JFK and to have them come to work without food on their table, we think that is pathetic,” George Williams, secretary general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, told Reuters.
Williams said health-care workers at JFK, the country's largest referral hospital, had gone unpaid for two months.
The Liberian strike came a day after health-care workers at the Connaught hospital in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown held a one-day protest over pay and conditions.
Staff there returned to work on Tuesday after they said the government settled a backlog of hazard pay and agreed to raise the weekly risk bonus to $100 from $40 for nurses working in Ebola wards and members of burial crews.
Separately, the Liberian government began offering a $1 000 bonus to any healthcare workers who agreed to work in Ebola treatment facilities.
The World Health organisation and other international bodies have rushed to support healthcare systems in affected countries, but additional staff and resources have been slow to arrive.
In Monrovia, Medecins Sans Frontieres said its new ELWA 3 centre, which has 160 beds, was overflowing with patients. “Every day we have to turn sick people away because we are too full,” said Stefan Liljegren, MSF coordinator at the site.
Further pressuring the ability of the region's governments to spend money on healthcare, the epidemic has put harvests at risk and sent food prices soaring in West Africa, the UN Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) said. The agency issued an alert over food security for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which are most affected by the outbreak.
Restrictions on people's movements and establishment of quarantine zones to contain the spread of the haemorrhagic fever have led to panic buying, food shortages and price hikes.
“Even prior to the Ebola outbreak, households in some of the most affected areas were spending up to 80 percent of their incomes on food,” said Vincent Martin, head of an FAO unit in Dakar co-ordinating the agency's response. “Now these latest price spikes are effectively putting food completely out of their reach.”
The director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Thomas Frieden, said he expected the outbreak to accelerate and urged governments to act now.
“We're likely to see significant increases in cases. Already we have widespread transmission Liberia. In Sierra Leone, we're seeing strong signs that that will happen in the near future,” he said.
Frieden said the outbreak was the first epidemic of Ebola the world has ever known, meaning it was spreading widely in society and “threatening the stability” of affected and neighbouring countries.
Frieden, who has been briefing US President Barack Obama on the outbreak, said there was still a window of opportunity, but “that window is closing”.
“We need action now to scale up the response. We know how to stop Ebola. The challenge is to scale it up to the massive levels needed to stop this outbreak,” he said.
“The virus is moving faster than anyone anticipated. We need to move fast.”
In a video message to West Africans in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria and released on YouTube, Obama affirmed the United States' support in the fight against Ebola and attempted to dispel some myths about how it is spread.
“Ebola is not spread through the air like the flu. You cannot get it from casual contact like sitting next to someone on a bus,” he said.
Instead, he said the most common way people become infected “is by touching the body fluids of someone who is sick or has died from it, like their sweat, saliva or blood, or through a contaminated item, like a needle”.
Obama said that was why so many people were becoming infected while caring for Ebola patients at home, and he urged people who felt sick to get prompt treatment because half of the people who become ill recover.
“Stopping this disease won't be easy, but we know how to do it. You are not alone,” Obama said.
To try to ease the strain on their economies, Ivory Coast, which closed its borders with Liberia and Guinea last month, announced on Tuesday it would open humanitarian and economic corridors to its two western neighbours.
The death toll from an Ebola outbreak in the Djera region of northern Democratic Republic of Congo has risen to 31, Minister of Health Felix Kabange Numbi told Reuters on Tuesday. The outbreak in Congo's Equateur province is thought to be separate from the West African epidemic. - Reuters