Following the announcement of eight confirmed cases of ebola in the capital Conarky, the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), says Guinea is facing an unprecedented outbreak of the deadly virus.

It is the pattern of spread – affecting some locations that are hundreds of kilometers apart – that has prompted this statement, as Mariano Lugli, coordinator of MSF’s project in Conakry, explains:

“We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country: Gueckedou, Macenta Kissidougou, Nzerekore, and now Conakry.”

The news comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) distributes 3.5 tons of protective material to health facilities in different parts of the West African country.

The equipment, which includes materials for single-use personal protection, disinfection and secure burial, is to help health workers deal with a virus that kills 9 out of 10 people it infects, and for which there is no treatment or vaccine, meaning the only way to stop it spreading is through prevention.

Dr. Lansana Kourouma, head of the emergency section of the Chinese-Guinean Friendship hospital in Conakry, says the protection equipment is essential as they are not able to be in contact with patients who may be infected.

“With protection equipment we feel reassured and can do our job to help patients,” says Dr. Kourouma, whose team is currently caring for five patients under observation.

MSF reports that more than 40 tons of equipment has already been flown to Guinea to help MSF teams curb the spread of the disease. The teams include doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, water and sanitation experts, as well as anthropologists.

The WHO reports that half of the people infected in Conakry are health workers.

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The virus kills 9 out of 10 people it infects, and there is no treatment or vaccine.

The ebola virus causes ebola virus disease (EVD), one of the most virulent viral diseases known to man. EVD is a type of hemorrhagic fever that causes vomiting, diarrhea and external bleeding.

Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected individuals. It can also transfer to humans through handling of sick or dead infected wild animals, ranging from fruit bats to forest antelope to monkeys and gorillas.

There are five species of ebola. The one currently affecting Guinea is the Zaire strain, says Michel Van Herp, an MSF epidemiologist currently in Guekedou, “This is the most aggressive and deadly known form of the virus. It kills more than nine out of 10 patients,” he says, adding that:

“To stop the outbreak, it is important to trace the chain of transmission. All contacts of patients likely to have been contaminated should be monitored and isolated at the first sign of infection.”

“It is important that the Guinean authorities and the WHO help medical facilities put in place all necessary hygiene measures,” he urges.

After the outbreak in Guinea was confirmed on 21 March 2014, WHO says they advised Guinea’s neighbors to heighten surveillance for illness consistent with viral hemorrhagic fever, especially along land borders.

To date, Guinean health authorities have recorded 122 suspected patients of whom 78 have died. Other cases, suspected or diagnosed, have also been found in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia.

A WHO spokesman told Reuters that up to 400 people are now identified as potential ebola contacts in the three West African countries, and said it was important to find and check on these individuals.

Sierra Leone and Liberia reported to WHO that the suspected cases and deaths consistent with ebola virus occurred among people who had travelled to affected regions before their symptoms began. Two cases from Liberia have tested positive.

WHO is also in contact with other neighbouring countries who are stepping up their surveillance.

The UN agency does not recommend restricting trade or travel to Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, and notes:

Evidence from previous outbreaks shows that rapid response at the source of the outbreak is the best way to reduce the risk of the international spread of disease.”

In July 2013, Medical News Today learned how researchers are beginning to understand how Ebola suppresses the human immune system. Writing about their findings in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, the researchers describe how they discovered that a viral protein called VP35 stops an important cellular protein from activating the immune system, allowing the virus to spread.