BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali will not close its border with neighbouring Guinea after a two-year-old girl infected with Ebola was brought across the frontier by her grandmother and died in Mali this week, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said on Saturday.
The girl travelled hundreds of kilometres through Mali - including a stop in the capital Bamako - on public transport, potentially exposing many people to the virus, before she died in the western town of Kayes on Friday.
Keita said that the incident showed it was impossible to completely seal his country off from Ebola in neighbouring Guinea but said he remained calm as the girl's journey and potential contacts had already been traced.
"Guinea is Mali's neighbour. We have a shared border that we did not close and we will not close," he told France's RFI radio station.
Land-locked Mali relies on the ports of neighbouring Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast as gateways for much of its import needs. There is little accurate data but border closures by West African states trying to protect themselves from the epidemic have had a crippling effect on regional economies.
Keita said that the girl's grandmother had made a mistake by going to a funeral in Guinea, where more than 900 people have died of Ebola, and bringing her back.
"We are paying dearly for this," he said. "But I think this will cause more fear than anything else. The case was quickly contained."
Local and international Ebola experts are rushing teams to Mali to help try to contain the outbreak in the sixth West African nation to record Ebola this year. Senegal and Nigeria have contained outbreaks and been declared free of the disease.
At least 4,922 people have died of Ebola, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, though the real figure may be as much as three times higher due to under-reporting.
Over 10,000 people have been infected by the disease but U.N. experts warn that figure risks rising exponentially in coming weeks if the global response pledged does not swiftly translate into action on the ground.
Diplomats and health experts say the girl appears to have had Ebola-like symptoms and travelled for four days before she was eventually diagnosed with the disease on Oct. 23. Ebola cases are contagious as soon as they show symptoms.
The World Health Organisation said that 43 contacts had been identified and isolated. But a Malian health official, who asked not to be identified, said authorities estimated that at least 300 people had been in contact with the infected child.
"We will do everything we can to avoid panic. I notice that Bamako is calm today," Keita said.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell)