Tommy Trenchard / Reuters

WHO launches $100M Ebola response plan as crisis deepens

Sierra Leone declares emergency, calls in troops to quarantine victims as death toll in West Africa hits 729

The World Health Organization is launching a $100 million response plan to combat an "unprecedented" outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that has killed 729 people out of 1,323 infected since February, the U.N. agency said Thursday.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan will meet in Conakry, Guinea, on Friday with the presidents of affected West African nations, the agency said in a statement.

"The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination," said Chan.

The plan identifies the need for "several hundred more personnel" to be deployed in affected countries to ease the strain on overstretched treatment facilities, the WHO said.

Clinical doctors and nurses, epidemiologists and logisticians are urgently needed, it said in an appeal to donor countries.

Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency and called in troops to quarantine Ebola victims on Thursday, joining neighboring Liberia in imposing tough controls in the worst-ever outbreak of the virus.

"The plan sets out new needs to respond to the outbreak across the countries and bring up the level of preparedness in neighboring countries," WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said. "They need better information and infection-control measures."

The plan aims to stop transmission of the virus by strengthening disease surveillance, particularly in border areas, protecting health workers from infection and doing a better job of explaining the disease to communities.

Also Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning to avoid non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone due to the worsening Ebola outbreak.

"This is the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history. Far too many lives have been lost already," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a release. "It will take many months, and it won’t be easy, but Ebola can be stopped. We know what needs to be done. CDC is surging our response, sending 50 additional disease control experts to the region in the next 30 days."

During his emergency declaration Thursday, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma vowed to quarantine sick patients at home and conduct house-to-house searches for others who may have been exposed.

Koroma’s announcement came as neighboring Liberia also said it would be shutting down schools and ordering most public servants to stay home from work.

The outbreak has shown no signs of slowing down, particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Among the dead was the chief doctor treating Ebola in Sierra Leone, who was to be buried Thursday.

The government said Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan's death was "an irreparable loss of this son of the soil." The 39-year-old was a leading doctor on hemorrhagic fevers in a nation with very few medical resources.

The U.S. Peace Corps has evacuated 340 volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and said that two of its volunteers had been isolated and were under observation after coming in contact with a person who later died of the Ebola virus.

The State Department has confirmed that one U.S. citizen died from Ebola in Nigeria after being infected in Liberia. Two other American aid workers infected with Ebola, Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol, are in serious condition, but they have shown slight improvement. They were part of a team in Liberia from North Carolina–based Christian relief groups Samaritan's Purse and SIM.

Writebol, who helped disinfect the protective suits worn by medical personnel inside the isolation ward at a care center in Monrovia, is "fighting through" the disease, her son said Wednesday.

Ken Isaacs, a vice president at Samaritan's Purse, told CNN it was believed that a local staff member had come to work already infected with the virus. That staffer has since died.

"We think it was in the scrub-down area where the disease was passed to both Nancy and Kent," Isaacs said.

Ebola cases first emerged in Guinea back in March, and later spread across the borders to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The outbreak is now the largest ever recorded, and has infected three African capitals with international airports. Officials are trying to step up screening of passengers, though the American man of Liberian descent who later died of Ebola was able to fly from Liberia, where he contracted it, to Nigeria.

ASKY Airlines, a major regional airline, has suspended flights to two of the cities hardest hit by the outbreak — Monrovia, Liberia, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. ASKY flights will still continue to Guinea, though passengers departing from there and from the airline's hub in Lomé, Togo, will be screened for signs of the virus in a process that includes checking for fever, the airline said. 

Nigeria is also screening airline passengers arriving from foreign countries for symptoms of Ebola.

Ebola has no vaccine and no specific treatment. The fatality rate of the current outbreak is about 60 percent, but experts say the risk of travelers contracting it is considered low because it requires direct contact with bodily fluids or secretions such as urine, blood, sweat or saliva. Ebola can't be spread like flu through casual contact or breathing in the same air.

Patients are contagious only once the disease has progressed to the point that they show symptoms, according to the World Health Organization. The most vulnerable are health care workers and relatives who come in much closer contact with the sick.

The World Health Organization is not recommending travel restrictions or border closures due to the Ebola outbreak. There would be a low risk to other passengers if an infected person flew, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Thursday.

However, the global public health organization Doctors Without Borders warned Wednesday that the crisis is "unprecedented” and “absolutely out of control" as countries struggle to take effective actions against the outbreak.

"If the situation does not improve fairly quickly, there is a real risk of new countries being affected," Bart Janssens, the group's director of operations, told Belgium's La Libre Belgique newspaper. "It is difficult to predict, because we have never known such an epidemic."

Hong Kong has been put on full alert for the Ebola virus, with new guidelines including immediately isolating and notifying relevant authorities of feverish travelers arriving from West Africa, according to the health department.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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