WHO: Fear hinders efforts to contain Ebola outbreak in West Africa

The World Health Organization said on Monday a number of factors, such as a lack of space for infected patients, are hindering efforts to contain the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

The outbreak has led to the deaths of more than 1,000 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have only recently, according to the WHO, returned to stability after years of conflict. Ongoing civil war left the health systems in the countries largely disabled or destroyed.

The WHO said a surge in the number of Ebola cases has left many facilities unable to provide proper care for patients. Supplies are dwindling, patients are being turned away in some places and the outbreak outpaces diagnostic capabilities, making it difficult for officials to confirm or exclude cases and pinpoint the person's point of contact.

In some areas, the desire to maintain tradition has helped to exacerbate the outbreak. In Guinea, approximately 60 percent of Ebola cases were linked to traditional burial practices. Ebola is transmitted through close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

"In some areas, the inclusion of social anthropologists on outbreak teams is helping to reduce fear and change behaviors," the WHO said. "The fact that no effective medical treatment exists has enforced the desire of families to care for patients in their homes or turn to traditional healers. Many communities now understand the importance of managing symptoms through supportive care. Evidence that early detection and supportive care greatly improve prospects for survival is a powerful incentive to seek medical care."

According to the WHO, however, fear is the most difficult challenge to overcome.

"Fear causes contacts of cases to escape from the surveillance system, families to hide symptomatic loved ones or take them to traditional healers and patients to flee treatment centers," the WHO said. "Fear, and the hostility it can feed, have threatened the security of national and international response teams. Health-care staff fear for their lives...Outbreak control is further compromised when fear causes airlines to refuse to transport personal protective equipment and courier services to refuse to transport properly and securely packaged patient samples to a WHO-approved laboratory."

While fear has helped exacerbate the challenges associated with containing the outbreak, the WHO said, fear has also made the fight more visible to the public.

"Such a high level of alert further increases the likelihood that any imported case will be quickly detected and properly managed, limiting onward transmission," the WHO said.