DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are tracking an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and it appears to be getting worse. Ebola is one of the most lethal viruses on Earth and according to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, there have been 122 suspected cases and 78 deaths in Guinea. Two more cases have been confirmed in neighboring Liberia and other suspected cases have turned up in Sierra Leone.

The virus appears to be spreading in ways it hasn't in the past and some countries are shutting down border crossings and closing public markets to try to keep the disease at bay. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Ebola outbreaks among humans usually are concentrated in rural parts of Central Africa. The disease doesn't tend to spread very far, in part, because it kills most of its victims before they can travel any great distance. But this time things are different. This is the first major outbreak outside of the Congo Basin. And rather than being focused in one village, it's spread across three countries.

In Guinea it's moved from the rural interior to the bustling capital on the coast. Tarik Jasarevic with the World Health Organization is part of an Ebola response team that's just flown in to the Guinean capital of Conakry.

TARIK JASAREVIC: It is a highly contagious disease. We don't have a vaccine. We don't have a specific treatment and fatality ratio is very high.

BEAUBIEN: The strain of Ebola that's raging in West Africa right now has had a fatality rate of up to 90 percent in the past. Physicians can't do much to save people who are already sick. Doctors Without Borders is concentrating on setting up isolation units, in part to care for the dying but also to get infected patients away from other potential victims.

The virus is not airborne. It can only pass from person to person through bodily fluids. Dr. Esther Sterk with Doctors Without Borders says this is why hospital workers and family members are at the highest risk.

DR. ESTHER STERK: For example, a man gets sick and then his wife starts to clean up his diarrhea and his vomit and she can get infected. And, for example, her sister comes to take care of the wife of the man. So this is how it normally spreads. It's really caretakers of a patient that get sick.

BEAUBIEN: Sterk has worked on four Ebola outbreaks over the last decade. She's now helping coordinate Doctors Without Borders response to the crisis from Geneva. Sterk says one of the biggest problems in the early days of the outbreak was that people in the region didn't know they were dealing with Ebola or even what Ebola is.

Guinea has launched widespread media campaigns telling people to not touch the bodily fluids of anyone who is sick. And to avoid traditional funeral practices that include cleaning corpses by hand. Sterk says by limiting transmission and isolating infected patients, she's confident this outbreak can be controlled.

STERK: We will manage to contain this outbreak (unintelligible) but when is a bit difficult to say at the moment.

BEAUBIEN: A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also landed in West Africa this week to try to help with that containment. Stuart Nichol, the head of the CDC's Viral Special Pathogens branch, says the death toll is expected to rise in the coming weeks, making this one of the bigger outbreaks. And he says this outbreak unfortunately shows that Ebola is far more widespread in Africa than previously thought.

STUART NICHOL: We think the reservoir for Ebola virus are bats. And so obviously bats are very mobile and so probably the distribution of the virus across Africa is probably broader than we currently know.

BEAUBIEN: In some places people eat bats. Other times people eat fruit that bats have been chewing on. And the virus then makes the leap from bats to humans. This current situation in West Africa suggests that even more Ebola outbreaks could occur in the future. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.

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