Ebola virus: WHO is taking outbreak 'very seriously' as Saudi Arabia suspends visas over contagion fears

Authorities have recorded 80 deaths and 122 suspected cases in the outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is taking the current outbreak of the Ebola virus “very seriously”, after at least 80 patients out of a total 122 diagnosed with the disease in Guinea have died.

The virus has spread to neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia, who are scrambling to bring the outbreak under control by imposing health and travel restrictions.

Liberia's Senate on Tuesday agreed that the government should declare a state of emergency that would lead to the closure of the country's borders.

"Liberia should close her borders with all the three countries which are sharing borders with us - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast," Senator Sando Johnson said.

Liberia's lower house of parliament is expected to debate the proposal on Thursday. If passed, it will be sent for approval to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Saudi Arabia's health ministry said in a statement it had recommended its government cease issuing visas to pilgrims from Guinea and Liberia as a precautionary measure, although the WHO has not yet requested any travel or trade ban on both countries.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) warned of an “unprecedented epidemic” on Monday and said they face an uphill struggle because the infections are scattered across several locations, most worryingly in Guinea's capital Conakry, which has a population of two million people.

Mariano Lugli, coordinator of MSF's project in Conakry, said: "We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country."

But WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl insisted the outbreak is not an epidemic, nor was it unprecedented and stressed there have been bigger outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

"This is relatively small still. The biggest outbreaks have been over 400 cases," Mr Hartl told a news conference in Geneva.

"Ebola already causes enough concern and we need to be very careful about how we characterise something which is up until now an outbreak with sporadic cases."

Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines.

Symptoms include a fever, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in some cases, internal and external bleeding.

The disease, which has a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent, is transmitted between humans through contact with organs, blood, secretions, or other bodily fluids. It is most commonly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, South Sudan and Gabon.

Additional reporting by agencies

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