© www.cubadebate.cu/AFP/FileThis photo released by Cuban official website www.cubadebate.cu shows President Raul Castro (L) at an airport in Havana as 35 doctors and 48 nurses prepare to depart for Liberia and Guinea to fight the Ebola epidemic on October 21, 2014
Monrovia (AFP) – Cuban nurses and doctors headed to Liberia and Guinea Wednesday to help the fight against Ebola, as the death toll from the outbreak neared 4,900 and countries raced to get experimental vaccines ready for “real-world use”.
The latest contingent of 83 reinforcements sent by Havana brought the total number of Cuban health workers in west Africa to at least 248, after 165 medical professionals were already sent to Sierra Leone last month.
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the epicentre of the world’s worst-ever Ebola epidemic, which according to the latest World Health Organization figures has killed 4,877 people out of 9,936 registered cases.
Cuba’s state-run Granma newspaper reported that the plane carrying the “heroic” medical workers was seen off at the airport by President Raul Castro late Tuesday.
The island’s response to the epidemic has won plaudits from humanitarian workers who say the international community’s reaction has been lacking.
With experts warning the rate of infections could reach 10,000 a week by early December, researchers around the world are scrambling to beat the tropical fever, for which there is currently no licensed treatment or vaccine.
The WHO in Geneva held its third round of emergency talks on Ebola Wednesday, discussing efforts to combat the tropical fever.
The talks will likely last two days with a news conference planned the day after they wrap up.
Meanwhile, some 1,600 doses of the experimental rVSV vaccine against Ebola arrived at the Geneva University Hospital from Canada.
– Promising results –
The WHO is to coordinate trials of the vaccine in Geneva alongside those already under way in Germany, Gabon and Kenya.
The vaccine, developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, is one of two experimental Ebola vaccines identified by the WHO as having shown promising results when tested on monkeys.
WHO assistant director general Marie-Paule Kieny said Tuesday the goal was to be able to ship initial supplies to Africa by early 2015, though mass vaccination campaigns are not yet on the cards.
“There is a very strong movement now from governments of many countries to push as quickly as possible these vaccines into real-world use,” she said.
A key aim is to help guard health workers against Ebola — some 240 have died so far as they strive to care for desperate patients.
Also Wednesday US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced it would spend $200 million (157 million euros) to accelerate an Ebola vaccine programme that is in development.
It plans tests on volunteers in January.
The Red Cross said it would be at least four months before the epidemic is contained, but only if all necessary steps are taken.
“It will be possible, as it was possible in the past, to contain this epidemic within four to six months” if the response is adequate, said Elhadj As Sy, chief of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
– New US measures –
The United States tightened up its screening process for people entering the US from the hardest-hit Ebola nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, announcing that such travellers would undergo “active monitoring” for signs of the virus for 21 days.
The system aims to “further protect Americans against Ebola” by monitoring travellers for the entirety of the virus’s incubation period, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden said.
The travellers will be asked to carry out daily self-checks for fever and provide contact details of friends or family in case follow-up is needed, he said.
The new measures came a day after the US Department of Homeland Security announced that all passengers from the affected region would have to fly into one of five airports that have additional screening measures in place.
However, experts writing in The Lancet medical journal on Tuesday said that screening air travellers on departure was a better option than monitoring them when they arrive abroad.
In Sierra Leone, two people died in a riot which erupted on Tuesday when health workers tried to take a blood sample from a 90-year-old woman suspected of having Ebola.
A machete-wielding mob clashed with security personnel in the eastern town of Koidu and then went on a rampage, doctors told AFP. Several buildings were attacked and gangs of youths roamed the streets shouting “No more Ebola!”