FRENCH PRESIDENT François Hollande became the first western leader to visit a West African country ravaged by Ebola yesterday when he touched down in Guinea.
Guinea’s president greeted his French counterpart at the airport.
French health workers, who are among worldwide volunteers responding to the Ebola disaster, also greeted Mr Hollande.
The president will visit an Ebola treatment centre at the capital Conakry’s main hospital.
He will also have a longer meeting with president Alpha Condé and with French health workers. The visit was due to last eight hours during which he was to take stock of a medical response hampered by poor co-ordination and help demystify fears about the stigmatising virus – which is transmitted by direct contact with infected bodily fluids.
It is nearly a year since the first patient died in a south-eastern village of Guinea.
At least 25 villages in the country’s forested and mountainous south-east still refuse to allow entry by health workers who are trying to trace potential cases, according to human rights groups attending a seminar this week on the response to Ebola.
The disease has ravaged three West African countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – and affected nearly 16,000 people, making it by far the largest Ebola outbreak in history.
This epidemic has presented challenges never seen before – infecting thousands over an enormous area, including in cities, where it has spread among populations faster than doctors have been able to keep up, and in remote areas, where it has been difficult to send help.
Because West Africa had never before seen an outbreak – Ebola is typically found in east or central Africa – people unfamiliar with the disease have been resisting offers of help.
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All of this has forced a new kind of response, including larger treatment centres but also an increasingly need for rapid-response teams that can be helicoptered into remote areas. The response has met problems, such as the difficulty of transporting potentially infectious blood samples long distances on poor roads.
Recently, samples being transported by taxi in Guinea were stolen by bandits.
The US ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac said yesterday that a contract will be signed soon that will allow such samples, and even perhaps patients, to be flown by helicopter out of remote areas and brought to labs and treatment centres.
The US military has already airlifted rapid-response teams of epidemiologists and health officials into remote areas, but it will not be transporting the blood samples, said Ms Malac.
The response is constantly being recalibrated, she said, as the epidemic shifts.
In Liberia, which has recorded the highest number of cases, the spread of the infection is slowing down. Plans for some large treatment centres – thought to be desperately needed just weeks ago – have been scrapped, and officials are focusing more on mobile teams or smaller care centres. But those plans have been slow to get off the ground.
With the outbreak stabilising in Liberia, the government there has said it hopes there will be no new cases by Christmas.
Ms Malac warned the disease is unpredictable. “We’re still getting new cases every day,” she said, and each new case puts others at risk. “None of us know for sure what will happen. All we can to do is continue to drive toward zero.”
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