CONAKRY (AFP) - Guinea identified the Ebola virus Saturday as the source of a highly contagious epidemic raging through its southern forests, as the death toll rose to 34.
Experts in the west African nation had been unable to identify the disease, whose symptoms - diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding - were first observed six weeks ago, but scientists in the French city of Lyon confirmed it was Ebola, the Guinean health ministry said.
"We got the first results from Lyon yesterday (Friday) which informed us of the presence of the Ebola virus as the cause of this outbreak," Sakoba Keita, the ministry's chief disease prevention officer told AFP.
"Up to today we have identified 49 cases with 34 deaths in four prefectures." To date, no treatment or vaccine is available for Ebola, which kills between 25 and 90 percent of those who fall sick, depending on the strain of the virus, according to the World Health Organisation.
The disease is transmitted by direct contact with blood, faeces or sweat, or by sexual contact or unprotected handling of contaminated corpses.
Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a statement it would strengthen its team of 24 doctors, nurses, logisticians and experts in hygiene and sanitation already in Guinea.
The organisation has set up isolation units for suspected cases in the southern region of Nzerekore and is looking for people who may have had contact with the infected.
"These structures are essential to prevent the spread of the disease, which is highly contagious," said MSF tropical medicine adviser Esther Sterk said.
"Specialised staff are providing care to patients showing signs of infection."
MSF said it was sending around 33 tonnes of medicines and isolation, sanitation and protective equipment in two planes leaving from Belgium and France.
Ebola, one of the world's most virulent diseases, was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976 and the country has had eight outbreaks.
The most recent epidemic, in the DRC, infected 62 people and left 34 dead between May and November 2012, according to the country's health ministry.
There are fears it could be used in a biological weapons attack.
According to researchers, the virus multiplies quickly, overwhelming the immune system's ability to fight the infection.
The French embassy in the Liberian capital Monrovia released a travel advisory warning French citizens against travel to the affected parts of Guinea or areas of northern Liberia near the border between the countries.
It said anyone who had to travel to southern Guinea should "strictly respect the hygiene rules, not consume the meat of animals killed by hunting and stay away from areas of high density of population like markets and football grounds".
A medic in Monrovia told AFP on condition of anonymity that Liberia was at considerable risk from the disease.
"We have a 90 percent chance of having cases in Monrovia because about 80 percent of goods on the Liberian market come from Guinea," he said.