Kjell Gunnar Beraas, MSF/AP

Aid group: Ebola outbreak in Guinea unprecedented

First outbreak ever in West Africa has killed 80 people so far and spurred fears in neighboring countries

Health authorities in Guinea are facing an "unprecedented epidemic" of Ebola with a wide-ranging geographical spread that will make containing the disease difficult, international aid group Doctors Without Borders warned Monday.

The death toll in Guinea has now climbed to 78, the group said. The World Health Organization said another three people are believed to have died from the virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone, prompting fears of a regional epidemic.

Ebola, which causes severe internal and external bleeding and is almost always fatal, has spread since January from a remote forested corner of southern Guinea to the country’s coastal capital of Conakry.

The emergence of Ebola in Guinea poses challenges never seen in previous outbreaks that involved "more remote locations as opposed to urban areas," Doctors Without Borders said in a statement.

"The vast geographic spread of the Guinea outbreak is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organizations working to control the epidemic," said Mariano Lugli, the group's coordinator in Conakry.

The outbreak is the first of its kind in West Africa in two decades and has spooked a number of neighboring governments with weak health systems, causing Senegal to close its border with Guinea and other countries to restrict travel and cross-border exchanges.

Senegalese music superstar Youssou Ndour canceled a weekend concert in Conakry, Guinea's capital, because he feared the disease could spread in a large crowd gathered to hear him. Residents have steered clear of the hospital in the city of 2 million where, according to authorities, relatives of one victim are being held in isolation.

The Doctors Without Borders statement comes a day after Guinea's President Alpa Conde appealed for calm. "My government and I are very worried about this epidemic," he said, ordering Guineans to take strict precautions to avoid further spread of the disease. "I also call on people not to give in to panic or believe the rumors that are fueling people's fears," he added.

There is no vaccine and no known cure for Ebola, which initially induces fever, headaches, muscle pain and weakness. In its more acute phase, Ebola causes vomiting, diarrhea and external bleeding that carry the virus outside victims' bodies and threaten to infect anyone who touches them.

Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people since it was first recorded in 1976 in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, but this is the first fatal outbreak in West Africa.

Officials have not conclusively ruled how the virus came to Guinea, a West African nation far from Congo's borders. However, bats that carry the virus are eaten as a local delicacy in Guinea.

The virus can be transmitted from human-to-human through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. Bereaved relatives can also contract the virus when coming into contact with the victims' bodies at communal funerals, health officials say.

Wire services

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