CONAKRY (AFP) - Aid workers and medics battled on Monday to contain west Africa's first outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus as tests on suspected cases in Conakry allayed fears that it had spread to the capital.
More than 60 people have died in an outbreak of the virulent virus raging through Guinea's southern forests but tests on three haemorrhagic fever cases - two of them fatal - in Conakry were negative, the government said.
"The Pasteur Institute in Dakar worked urgently all last night on samples taken from suspected cases here in Conakry which were all negative," said Sakoba Keita, the health ministry's chief disease prevention officer.
"So for now, there's no Ebola in Conakry, but haemorrhagic fever whose nature remains to be determined."
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a statement on Sunday that the Ebola virus "has quickly spread from the communities of Macenta, Gueckedou, and Kissidougou to the capital, Conakry."
Mr Keita said however that the Pasteur Institute was still working on identifying the virus behind the fever cases in the capital and would know more "in the coming hours".
Officials from the health ministry and the World Health Organisation met on Sunday in Conakry for urgent talks on the crisis.
"From January to March 23, Guinea has recorded a total of 87 suspected cases of viral haemorrhagic fever, including 61 deaths," they said in a statement on Monday, indicating that most cases had been reported in the south of the west African country.
The first analyses of samples conducted by the Pasteur Institute in the French city of Lyon showed that the cases in the south of Guinea were due to Ebola virus.
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.
UNICEF said on Sunday at least three victims of the outbreak were children and eight health workers had been among the first to die after treating infected patients.
The organisation urged Guineans not to attend funerals wherever possible and to avoid all contact with the sick and the dead.
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 suffered eight outbreaks.
The most recent epidemic, also in the DRC, infected 62 people and left 34 dead between May and November 2012, according to the country's health ministry.
Although there have also been outbreaks among humans in Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon, the disease had never before been detected in people in west Africa.
According to researchers, the virus multiplies quickly, overwhelming the immune system's ability to fight the infection.
Aid organisation Plan International warned that the epidemic risked spreading to neighbouring countries.
"Communities in the affected region stretch across the borders and people move freely within this area. This poses a serious risk of the epidemic becoming widespread with devastating consequences," Mr Ibrahima Toure, Plan's country director in Guinea, said in a statement.
"Communities, especially children, in the border areas between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are vulnerable and need immediate support. A large scale preventive action will need to be put in place rapidly," he added.
Plan said that its staff in southern Guinea were reporting that there was a "strong fear" of Ebola among locals.
"A few people have even left the affected area for Conakry," said Plan's programme unit manager in Macenta, Mamady Drame.