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UN vows central role in fighting 'exceptional' Ebola epidemic

INFO DRIVE. A Liberian woman reads an Ebola information poster on the prevention of the Ebola epidemic, during UNICEF's sensitization campaign at the Mission for Today Holy Church, in Newkru Town, Monrovia, Liberia, 22 June 2014.

Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

MONROVIA, Liberia - The United Nations vowed Saturday, August 23, to play a "strong role" in helping Liberia and its neighbors fight the deadly outbreak of Ebola in west Africa, which it said could take months to bring it under control.

Liberia has been particularly hard hit by the epidemic that has swept relentlessly across the region since March, accounting for almost half of the 1,427 deaths.

In recognition of the deteriorating situation, neighbouring Ivory Coast announced on Saturday, August 23, it had closed its borders with Liberia and Guinea in a bid to protect its citizens.

"Ebola in Liberia must be addressed to ensure a stable economy, future and society," said Karin Landgren, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's special representative for the country.

"The magnitude of this outbreak requires a higher level of coordination than previous responses and the UN Mission in Liberia will play a strong role in this effort," she said in a statement on Saturday.

Her comments were echoed by Dr David Nabarro, the UN's new pointman on Ebola, who arrived in the region on Thursday to tour the Ebola-hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.

Nabarro, a British physician tasked with coordinating the global response to the worst-ever outbreak of the deadly virus, said the UN would "ensure that adequate resources are given to sectors that need it most".

A day earlier, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned it could take "several months" to bring the epidemic under control.

"This is not something to turn around overnight, it is not going to be easy; we expect several months of hard work," said the UN agency's Assistant Director-General, Dr Keiji Fukuda, who is accompanying Nabarro on his tour.

Death toll rises

Their visit has coincided with a surge in new cases of Ebola in the region, as affected countries struggle to contain the spread of the killer virus.

The WHO said Friday that the death toll had risen to 1,427 out of more than 2,600 cases – with 77 succumbing to the disease between August 18 and 20.

Britain's Department of Health said on Saturday that a British national who lives in Sierra Leone has tested positive for Ebola.

The unidentified person is the first British citizen to have contracted the disease.

Nigeria, which has seen progress in battling the outbreak, has suffered five deaths to date. But in a worrying sign for Africa's most populus country, officials said Friday that two more people had tested positive for Ebola.

Liberia remains the worst-affected country with 624 deaths. Guinea has seen 406 people die while in Sierra Leone, 392 have succumbed to the haemorrhagic fever.

Aid workers said crematoriums in the Liberian capital Monrovia are struggling to deal with dozens of bodies arriving every day, and earlier this week, violence erupted in an Ebola quarantine zone in the capital after soldiers opened fire on protesting crowds.

The failure of west African countries to bring the epidemic under control has worried its neighbours and nations further afield.

Many flights to the region have been cancelled, and authorities around the world have adopted measures to screen travellers arriving from affected nations.

The Philippines said Saturday that it would repatriate 115 of its troops serving as UN peacekeepers in Liberia due to the health risk posed by the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa.

The move by the Ivory Coast to close its borders with Guinea and Liberia came just days after Senegal did the same with Guinea, where the outbreak is thought to have begun.

'Pariah states'

The extreme measures taken against affected countries, especially by their neighbors, has caused friction in the region.

Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, the chairman of the Sierra Leone's presidential task force on Ebola, said he was "surprised" by the lack of solidarity among African countries.

"(It) gives the impression that we are pariah states," Kargo said on state television, in reference to a South African ban on non-citizens travelling from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

"The epidemic is not manmade but a natural phenomenon, we did not create it," said Kargbo, who is a presidential advisor and former information minister.

"Once we get over the epidemic, we will begin to look at ourselves to know who our friends are," he added.

No cure or vaccine is currently available for the deadly virus, which is spread by close contact with body fluids, meaning patients must be isolated. – Rappler.com