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A passenger holds personal possessions as a Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer on her at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday Aug. 6, 2014. (Sunday Alamba/AP)
A passenger holds personal possessions as a Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer on her at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday Aug. 6, 2014. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

As Ebola spreads, WHO plans response to outbreak after 932 deaths Add to ...

From Southern Africa to the Middle East, governments are scrambling to prepare for potential Ebola cases as the death toll rises and the deadly disease threatens to spread by air travel to more countries.

In its latest update, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 45 more deaths over a three-day period, bringing the death toll to 932 as of Aug. 4 in the biggest and deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.

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The outbreak has so far been concentrated in the West African nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, but new deaths were reported on Wednesday in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, while Southern African health ministers gathered in Johannesburg to plan their response if Ebola arrives.

The WHO has begun a special two-day meeting in Geneva to discuss whether to declare an international emergency over the Ebola outbreak, which would trigger new measures to treat the victims and impose travel restrictions.

It also announced that a panel of ethicists will meet next week to consider the sensitive question of whether experimental drugs should be given to Ebola patients in Africa. The drugs have already been given to two American aid workers repatriated to the U.S. after contacting Ebola in Liberia. This has provoked an outcry over whether Africans are being deprived of potentially life-saving treatment.

Normally, new drugs are subjected to careful tests and clinical trials before they are approved, but the WHO acknowledged that such tests are a “gold standard” that might not be the most ethical way of responding to a disease with no known treatment or vaccine.

“We need to ask the medical ethicists to give us guidance on what the responsible thing to do is,” said a statement by Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of the WHO.

Three of the world’s leading Ebola experts have urged the WHO to allow the use of experimental Ebola drugs in Africa. They see it as an issue of basic fairness. “It is highly likely that if Ebola were now spreading in Western countries, public-health authorities would give at-risk patients access to experimental drugs or vaccines,” they said.

“The African countries where the current outbreaks of Ebola are occurring should have the same opportunity. African governments should be allowed to make informed decisions about whether or not to use these products, for example to protect and treat health-care workers who run especially high risks of infection.”

The three experts are Peter Piot, who co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976; Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust; and David Heymann of the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security.

They said the West should “fast-track” the safety testing, so that the best-performing drugs could go into broader trials in the affected countries to help fight the current Ebola outbreak.

Ebola can have a death rate of up to 90 per cent. The death rate in the current outbreak is around 50 to 70 per cent, analysts say.

Meanwhile, a Saudi Arabian man died on Wednesday after returning from a business trip to Sierra Leone. He was suspected of having Ebola symptoms. If tests confirm that he had the disease, it would be the first confirmed Ebola death outside Africa.

The Saudi health ministry said it is trying to trace his travel route and identify the people he contacted during his travel. The government has already suspended pilgrimage visits from Muslims in several West African countries in an attempt to prevent Ebola from arriving in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, Spain sent a plane specially equipped for medical evacuation to repatriate a Spanish missionary, the first Ebola patient to be returned to Europe in the outbreak.

Some airlines, including British Airways and Emirates, have suspended their flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The infected Americans were flown to Atlanta on private jets equipped with collapsible mobile isolation tents.

In Nigeria, authorities announced on Wednesday that a nurse had died of Ebola after treating the country’s first Ebola victim, who had flown to Lagos from Liberia. The nurse became the second person to die of Ebola in the continent’s most populous country, but five more cases have been confirmed among hospital workers who treated the patient, businessman Patrick Sawyer. All five are being treated in an isolation ward.

In Johannesburg, health ministers from across Southern Africa held an emergency meeting to plan for potential Ebola cases. Air travel from West Africa to Southern Africa is common, so the region must be “vigilant” about Ebola, the ministers said.

South Africa has designated hospitals in each of its major regions to prepare for possible Ebola cases, and other countries are making similar plans.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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