An Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 700 people in West Africa is moving faster than the efforts to control the disease, the head of the World Health Organization warned, as presidents from the affected countries met Friday in Guinea’s capital.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the meeting in Conakry ‘‘must be a turning point’’ in the battle against Ebola, which is now infecting people in three African capitals for the first time in history.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries," Chan said.
Chan emphasized Friday that the general public ‘‘is not at high risk of infection,’’ but warned that the virus must not be allowed to spread.
‘‘Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes,’’ she said. ‘‘We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises.’’
Also on Friday, the aid group Doctors Without Borders described the outbreak as "out of control" and said the current response has been "entirely insufficient."
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. In the advanced stages of the hemorrhagic fever patients sometimes bleed from the eyes, mouth and ears.
At least 729 people in four countries — Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria — have died since cases first emerged in March.
Some people in the affected areas have apparently lost faith in their respective medical systems, further complicating efforts to curb the outbreak. Many sick patients have refused to go to isolation centers, or families have been reluctant to bring them in, partially because of fear of subsequently being unable to see them again.
Two Americans infected with the virus while working in Liberia are to be flown to the United States to be treated in a high-security ward at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, hospital officials said.
The two stricken workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol were working in Liberia on behalf of North Carolina–based Christian relief groups Samaritan's Purse and SIM. The U.S. State Department said in a press release Friday that two U.S. citizens were being evacuated to the U.S "over the coming days."
CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said Friday that Ebola does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. public. "Ebola can only be transmitted by someone who shows signs of illness," Reynolds said. "Remember, Ebola is not transmitted through the air as so many other deadly diseases are."
Reynolds confirmed that her agency was working with the U.S. State Department to facilitate the transfer.
Meanwhile, on Thursday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel advisory urging people to avoid all nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the epicenter of the outbreak.
WHO has said it plans to launch a $100 million response plan that would include funding the deployment of hundreds more health care workers to the affected countries.
Separately, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans in mid-September to begin testing an experimental Ebola vaccine on people after seeing encouraging results in preclinical trials on monkeys, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's allergy and infectious diseases unit, said in an email.