BAMAKO/CONAKRY (Reuters) - An angry crowd attacked an Ebola treatment centre in Guinea on Friday, accusing its staff of bringing the deadly disease to the town, Medecins Sans Frontieres said, as Mali identified its first suspected cases.
More than 90 people have already died in Guinea and Liberia in what medical charity MSF, or Doctors without Borders, has warned could turn into an unprecedented epidemic in an impoverished region with poor health services.
The outbreak in Guinea is the first time the disease, epidemics of which occur regularly in Central Africa, has appeared in the country. Infected patients initially went undiagnosed for several weeks before tests confirmed Ebola.
News of the outbreak has sent shockwaves through communities with little knowledge of the disease or how it is transmitted, and the suspected cases in Mali have added to fears that it is spreading in West Africa.
MSF spokesman Sam Taylor told a Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter that the attackers in Macenta, around 425 km (265 miles) southeast of the capital Conakry, had accused staff of bringing the disease to the town.
"We have evacuated all our staff and closed the treatment centre," he said. "We have the full support of the local leaders and we're working with the authorities to try and resolve this problem as quickly as possible so we can start treating people again."
He declined to give further details of the incident, including whether any MSF staff had been hurt in the attack.
In a statement broadcast on state television late on Thursday, Mali's government announced that three people had been placed in quarantine and samples sent off to Atlanta in the United States for tests.
"A high-speed intervention team has been created to follow the evolution of the situation on the ground," the statement said. It added that the health of the three suspected victims was showing signs of improvement.
The latest outbreak originated in Guinea two months ago. Neighbouring Sierra Leone has since reported suspected cases while Liberia's government has confirmed the disease's presence there. Gambia placed two people in quarantine although the Health Ministry has since said the cases were negative.
Guinea's Health Ministry said two more suspected victims of the virus had died, bringing its death count to 86.
Liberia also reported three new deaths among its suspected 14 cases, raising its death toll to seven.
"We need to fight to contain it. A medical team from MSF came today to help train some of our health workers," said Liberia's health minister, Walter Gwenegale.
FEAR AND MISTRUST
Foreign mining companies have locked down operations and pulled out some international staff in mineral-rich Guinea. French health authorities have also put doctors and hospitals on alert in case people travelling to and from countries in the region pick up the disease.
Ebola, which has killed some 1,500 people since it was first discovered in 1976 in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, causes vomiting, diarrhoea and external bleeding. It has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent.
Many health systems in West Africa are poorly equipped to deal with an epidemic and aid workers have warned of the difficulty of fighting infections scattered across several locations and in densely populated areas such as Conakry.
Some blame the government for not immediately quarantining an individual who carried the virus to the capital from the remote south, where the bulk of the 137 cases are concentrated.
There are now 16 cases in Conkary, of which five have died, a World Health Organisation spokesman said on Friday.
"How can we trust them now? We have to look after ourselves," said Dede Diallo, a Conakry resident who stopped working and has kept her children at home since the outbreak.
Conakry's luxury five-star Palm Camayenne Hotel, popular among businessmen and politicians, is running at less than a third of occupancy, according to a receptionist.
Flight data told a similar story. A return Brussels Airlines flight between the Belgian capital and Conakry on Thursday had just 55 people arriving and 200 leaving, an airline employee said.
Regional airline Gambia Bird delayed the start of a route to Conakry due to begin last weekend while Senegal has closed its border with Guinea because of the outbreak.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra, Saliou Samb and Misha Hussain in Conakry for the Thomson Reuters Foundation; Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alison Williams and Mohammad Zargham)