Why the World Health Organization is taking the ebola outbreak in Guinea 'very seriously'

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Marco Werman: The West African nation of Guinea is rarely in the news, but right now a deadly outbreak there of Ebola has a lot of people looking at Guinea. Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses on the planet and this outbreak in Guinea may have already killed some eighty people. The group Doctors Without Borders calls it unprecedented. The World Health Organization doesn't go that far. It says the disease is confined to a limited geographical area, but the WHO also says it's taking the outbreak very seriously. Tarik Jasarevic is a WHO spokesman who is in Guinea's capital, Conakry. He says the outbreak began in Guinea's remote southeastern forest region.

Tarik Jasarevic: This place where the first cases were reported from is the border region, so it's logical that it can go across the borders. So we are really now focusing all our efforts into response.

Werman: So what is the major emphasis of the response right now?

Jasarevic: Although there is no specific treatment, we know that supportive care is very beneficial for the patients. Another element is disease control and making sure the people who are infected are in such a setting that do not represent danger for health workers and for those who may eventually wish to visit them and making sure that health workers are using appropriate protection and material. It is important that we find people who have been in contact with those we know are infected so we can check on them and make sure that they don't have symptoms, and if they do that they are placed in appropriate settings.

Werman: Have you suspected or discovered any spread of this virus yet from patients to healthcare workers?

Jasarevic: Yes, and this is something that happened every time we had an Ebola outbreak because what happens is that when an infected person comes to a health center or hospital, health workers do not know this is Ebola, so they handle patients in a way they would do with anyone else and we know that Ebola is being transmitted to direct contact with the body fluid and we have a number of health workers who are being infected this time as it was the case in the past. So what is really important is to sensitize health workers so that when they see patients that present symptoms that could lead to an assumption that it's an Ebola case, they really take protective measures so they don't get infected themselves.

Werman: Of those eighty people who have died, I know not all of them, only twenty-two of those are confirmed cases, but any of those eighty healthcare workers?

Jasarevic: There were a couple of cases of healthcare workers who were victims of Ebola.

Werman: So, Tarik, what is the mood then about healthy people in Guinea and Liberia right now and among hospital workers?

Jasarevic: What is really crucial here is to provide the right information to everyone and the Ministry of Health and the president himself made an address a couple of days ago. The Ministry of Health is holding daily press conferences to explain really what Ebola is so they can understand and they can answer questions themselves. So there is a massive effort right now to provide the information to different parts of society so rumors cannot hold and that people do the right thing to protect themselves. It's very important to pass this message to people. Yes, it's a very serious disease and, yes, we don't have a vaccine or specific treatment, but we know how to protect a person. A person just should avoid contact with an infected human, a person should not touch the body of a diseased person, and these are kind of general messages we are trying to give away.

Werman: If Ebola is confirmed in a patient, is it lethal?

Jasarevic: It can be lethal. The mortality ratio is very high. In Ebola in general this time around, as we said, from one hundred and twenty-two cases eighty have died, so that makes the mortality ratio sixty-four, sixty-five percent which is quite high.

Werman: Finally, as you know, one of the big nightmare scenarios is not just it going across borders, but Ebola getting on an airplane in an individual and going to another country, another continent. What's being done at the local airports to prevent that from happening?

Jasarevic: Border measures are important, but the evidence shows that the best thing is really to go at the source of the infection and do the response there. So really we are focusing now on isolation wards, on tracing the contact, and trying to find those who may be infected and putting them in an appropriate setting.

Werman: Tarik Jasarevic is a spokesman with the UN's World Health Organization speaking with us from Conakry, the capital of Guinea in West Africa. Thanks very much.

Jasarevic: Thank you.