The deadly Ebola virus could continue to spread in West Africa for months in one of the most challenging outbreaks of the disease the international community has ever faced, health experts said Tuesday.
The outbreak has now caused 101 deaths from 157 suspected and confirmed cases in Guinea, where the outbreak originated, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday. Another 21 suspected and confirmed cases in neighboring Liberia have caused 10 deaths.
While previous outbreaks have produced a greater number of cases, WHO director-general Keiji Fukuda said the current one is remarkable for the wide area over which it has spread – from Guinea's remote tropical forests to the country's teeming capital, Conakry, and over the border to Liberia.
"We fully expect to be engaged in this outbreak for another two, three, four months," Fukuda said at a news conference in Geneva.
With the death count inching higher in Liberia, Guinea's other neighbors are in a state of heightened anxiety.
Even though it has no suspected cases of the virus, Senegal – which borders Guinea to the north – said Tuesday it has in place a "well-oiled machine" to preempt the spread of Ebola across its border, including heightened surveillance measures and isolation areas. "We have everything in place to take measures against Ebola," said the country's health minister, Eva Marie Coll Seck.
But the United Nations said it was still not recommending any travel restrictions to either Guinea or Liberia. Officials also got some good news this week when tests showed suspected cases in Ghana and Sierra Leone were not Ebola, the WHO said. It added that two of nine cases in Mali were also cleared.
Still, Fukuda warned that it's too early to say whether the rate of transmission is slowing, and the outbreak is far from over.
WHO medical officer Stephane Hugonnet, who just returned from Guinea, urged continued vigilance. "In Guinea Forestiere, the outbreak is not over. This is the epicenter," she said. "As long as it is not over there, there will be cases exported to the rest of the country."
Some 50 foreign experts have been deployed to help with infection control measures at hospitals and to trace 600 known contacts of infected patients, he said.
The disease, which causes severe internal and external bleeding and is usually fatal, incubates in an individual for up to 21 days. Outbreaks are generally not declared over until there have been no transmissions for at least two incubation periods.
In addition to isolating the sick, experts, including those from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, are looking for the source of every transmission. So far, experts have linked each case back to another known sick person, an important step toward containment, said Hugonnet.
Experts still do not know, however, how the disease came to West Africa in the first place. While there was an Ebola case in Ivory Coast two decades ago, the current strain is the kind that usually turns up in Central Africa, according to the WHO.
Al Jazeera and wire services