Workers from Doctors Without Borders unload emergency medical supplies to deal with an Ebola outbreak in Conakry, Guinea, at the weekend. Picture: REUTERS
Workers from Doctors Without Borders unload emergency medical supplies to deal with an Ebola outbreak in Conakry, Guinea, at the weekend. Picture: REUTERS

GENEVA — A team of US scientists will help to track the path of the Ebola outbreak that has killed at least 87 people in Africa.

There have been 134 cases of the incurable virus — which is fatal in about 90% of cases — in Guinea and Liberia, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.

A five-person team from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) arrived in Guinea on Monday. They will help to contact anyone who has been in touch with infected people, CDC official Steve Monroe said. A second team may go to Liberia and the agency is assessing the need for more laboratory assistance to analyse samples, he said.

Last week, when Canadian officials feared that a severely ill patient who had recently been to Liberia may have been infected with deadly Ebola, the US took notice. It was a "false alarm that reminded us that any of these diseases are only a plane ride away", Dr Monroe said.

The US is well prepared to handle infected patients on its soil with 20 CDC quarantine stations in place at US airports that are designed to deal with anyone who has symptoms of a wide range of infectious illnesses, including Ebola, according to spokeswoman Christine Pearson. Despite the outbreak, there are no special requests or guidelines to airlines about Ebola, though the CDC has issued a travel alert, she said.

"The time it takes to travel from rural Guinea to anywhere in the US is more than enough time to incubate the virus and be symptomatic," Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Laurie Garrett said in New York. "Even if you could get on an airplane, you’d be carried out on a gurney."

The CDC team arrived in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, late on Monday after receiving a request for assistance from Guinea’s health ministry and the World Health Organisation (WHO), said Dr Monroe, who is deputy director for the agency’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.

First identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the virus is transmitted to people through blood and other secretions of wild animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, bats and porcupines, according to the WHO.

Humans transmit the virus to each other through contact with blood and other body fluids. A WHO report on the 1976 outbreak wrote of alarming bleeding symptoms including "slow oozing from gums to brisk haemorrhage from multiple sites in fulminating cases". The report concluded that, with an 88% mortality rate, the new disease was the deadliest on record except for rabies.

The virus is one of a handful of diseases that are so deadly that they pose a risk to national security, according to the CDC, which lists the virus as a Category A bioterrorism agent, along with anthrax and smallpox.

Since 1976, outbreaks from various forms of the virus have surfaced periodically in Africa.

The virus revisited the Congo in 1995 and again in 2007, killing hundreds of people each time as it spread through families and hospitals. In Uganda, 149 people died in a 2007 outbreak. The last time the virus was found in West Africa was in 1994, when a single person was found with the disease in Côte d’Ivoire, according to the WHO.

While the virus is unlikely to leave the continent, according to most experts, the stigma and fear associated with Ebola can prompt people who catch it to flee local communities and seek care in hospitals outside the affected area, spreading the virus within the continent, said Ms Garrett, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for Newsday covering the 1995 outbreak in the Congo.

"The most crucial thing is to identify who’s infected, remove them from the general population … and clean up the hospitals to stop panic exodus."