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An Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is out of control and requires massive resources from governments and aid agencies to prevent it spreading further, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said.
In its latest report on the crisis, the U.N. World Health Organisation said the regional death toll had reached 350 since February. The crisis is already the deadliest outbreak since Ebola first emerged in central Africa in 1976.
The disease has not previously occurred in the West Africa region and local people remain frightened of it and view health facilities with suspicion. This makes it harder to bring it under control, MSF said in a statement.
At the same time, MSF said, a lack of understanding has meant people continue to prepare corpses and attend funerals of Ebola victims, leaving them vulnerable to a disease transmitted by touching victims or through bodily fluids.
"The epidemic is out of control," said Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations. "With the appearance of new sites in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there is a real risk of it spreading to other areas."
Civil society groups, governments and religious authorities have also failed to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic and as a result few prominent figures are promoting the fight against the disease, the statement said.
"Ebola is no longer a public health issue limited to Guinea. It is affecting the whole of West Africa," said Janssens, urging WHO, affected countries and their neighbours to deploy more resources especially trained medical staff.
Guinea's health minister rejected the MSF statement, saying it did not reflect the reality of the situation in the country.
"Today we have all our contacts under control and we are monitoring them regularly," Remy Lamah told Reuters.
Lamah said the only pocket of the country that remained a concern was a handful of villages on the Liberia and Sierra Leone border where people were resisting efforts to fight the disease due to local and traditional beliefs.
"Even there we are making progress," he said.
Ebola has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent and there is no vaccine and no known cure. The virus initially causes raging fever, headaches, muscle pain, conjunctivitis and weakness, before moving into more severe phases with vomiting, diarrhoea and haemorrhages.
MSF has treated some 470 patients, 215 of them confirmed cases, in specialised centres in the region but the organisation said it had reached the limit of its capacity.
Patients have been identified in more than 60 locations across the three countries making it harder to curb the outbreak. All three countries recorded new cases between June 15 and 19, according to the latest WHO report.
Sierra Leone, which did not confirm Ebola in the country until late last month, was the most affected with 39 new cases and eight new deaths, mostly in the Kailahun district near its border with Guinea and Liberia, WHO said.
WHO said it was working with all three governments to improve coordination and communication across the region.
West African health ministers are due to meet in Ghana on July 2 to improve the regional response.