An Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 700 people in West Africa is "moving faster than our efforts to control it", the World Health Organisation head warned yesterday.
WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun said her meeting in Conakry with the presidents of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia "must be a turning point" in the battle against the deadly disease, which has infected more than 1,300 people in the three countries since March.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also in severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries," said Chan, formerly director of health in Hong Kong.
The disease has killed at least 728 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and one man in Nigeria.
Health officials say the virus is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, but many sick people have refused to go to isolation centres. Sierra Leone is now sending teams door-to-door in search of people who may have the disease and those who may have been exposed to it.
Chan emphasised that the general public "is not at high risk of infection". However, she added: "Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes. We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises."
The WHO said it would launch a US$100 million response plan that would include funding the deployment of hundreds more health care workers to the affected countries.
Meanwhile, an American aid worker infected with the deadly virus while working in West Africa is to be flown to the United States for treatment in a high-security hospital ward. The unnamed worker, one of two Americans infected in the region, will be taken to a containment unit at hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dubai's Emirates became the first international airline to announce it was suspending flights to the three countries.