Ebola’s Next Stop May Be Ivory Coast as WHO Prepares Neighbors

CHART: Ebola Confirmed Cases & Deaths
SOURCE: WHO (Data as of Oct. 5, 2014)

Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Senegal top a list of 13 countries the World Health Organization is urging to be prepared for cases of the Ebola virus to ensure the epidemic doesn’t spread further.

The WHO is concluding a three-day meeting in the Republic of Congo today with a goal of developing a checklist African countries should use to ensure they’re prepared. Representatives from the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and African Development Bank were there as well.

The virus has spread to five of the seven counties in Guinea and Liberia that share borders with Ivory Coast, compared with just one county five weeks ago, according to the Geneva-based WHO. The other nations the agency is concerned may get Ebola cases are Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Mauritania, Nigeria and Togo, said Chris Bailey, a WHO spokesman.

“We are extremely at risk given the fact we share borders with two countries heavily affected,” said Daouda Coulibaly, head of the epidemiological monitoring service at the Ivory Coast’s National Institute of Public Health. “Considering the trade and the movements of population, we are extremely exposed but it’s a relative risk, not an absolute one. It’s written nowhere that we will be hit for sure.”

Suspended Flights

The nation’s government in August suspended flights to and from the three affected countries and closed its borders with Liberia and Guinea in an effort to keep Ebola out. Flights will resume in the coming days, Coulibaly said in a telephone interview this week.

The WHO’s checklist will ask the 13 countries to ensure they have laboratories that are able to test for Ebola, enough protective equipment and staff to perform contact tracing. The countries will need to develop protocols for handling medical waste, a communications plan and other measures to ensure they’re able to rapidly contain the virus, the WHO’s Bailey said.

Several isolation centers have been established in the largest city, Abidjan, and the country’s west that will be converted into as many as 20 treatment centers in the next few weeks, Coulibaly said. The government has also sent mobile phone text messages to citizens, banned the sale and consumption of bushmeat and advised people to abandon shaking hands and the traditional three-kiss greeting.

Overwhelming Demand

More telephone lines will be set up to provide information about Ebola after the first ones were overwhelmed with calls, Coulibaly said. The government installed hand-washing equipment at the entrance to public buildings.

Cocoa futures have climbed amid concern Ebola might spill into Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest grower of the bean.

Alassane Sogodogo, a cocoa farmer in the town of Para, a small town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border with Liberia, said closing the border has helped limit the number of people crossing over. People still cross the border on bush tracks and residents are “a bit worried but less than they used to be.”

“At least they’re not selling bushmeat any more,” Sogodogo said by phone yesterday. “There is no Ebola in the village on the other side of the border, so we don’t believe Ebola will arrive here.”

People in Para are being more careful and are washing their hands more often, he said. Still, hand sanitizer is too expensive for many people, he said.

First Steps

There’s little serious concern in Abidjan, a coastal city of about 6 million people on the Gulf of Guinea.

Morgane Habiyaremye, the owner of a trendy bar in the middle-class neighborhood of Cocody, said her compatriots are aware of the precautions they need to take, and have stopped shaking hands. She’s installed a bottle of hand sanitizer on the bar.

“I’m surprised it hasn’t reached Ivory Coast yet,” Habiyaremye said. “With the migration flow in the region and the fact the borders are porous, I don’t see how Ebola is not going to spread into the country at some point.”

Benoit Dikpe, a 42-year-old tailor in Cocody, said he’s stopped shaking hands except at home and with his three employees.

“I’m worried Ebola reaches Abidjan, but the government has taken protective measures to prevent people from these countries to come in,” he said. “So I don’t really think it will happen.”

Senegal, which reported one case of Ebola in a Guinean student in August, may be declared Ebola-free in the coming days, while Nigeria may also be considered free of the virus later this month after containing an outbreak involving 20 cases and eight deaths.

While Ivory Coast may not be able to keep Ebola out, it can be ready to stop it from spreading widely, Coulibaly said.

“The objective is not so much to prevent the disease,” he said. “It can come, but we need to detect at an early stage and contain it.”

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