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In West Africa there's growing concern about the spread of the lethal Ebola virus. The outbreak was first detected in Guinea this past winter. Since then, the World Health Organization has reported more than 500 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. West African health ministers have formed a regional response but as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, their efforts are threatened by public fear and lack of knowledge about Ebola.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Liberian musicians have recorded an awareness song called "Ebola In Town," which is also being played in other countries struck by the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EBOLA IN TOWN")

QUIST-ARCTON: Don't touch your friend is not strictly accurate advice, but it gets the message across. Take care, Ebola is highly contagious when transmitted through bodily fluids like blood, vomit, and saliva. And there's no cure, but if you take sick loved-ones to a health center for medical attention, they stand a better chance of survival. That's why Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is warning that people will be prosecuted if they're caught hiding suspected Ebola patients, as some are doing because of the panic the virus provokes.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Here, we're talking about a deadly disease - a disease that can kill people. And we're obliged to also protect the lives of people. And so this is just bringing to their attention that there's a law that says they must do that, and if they don't, then there are penalties.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sierra Leone's president delivered a similar warning earlier. Ernest Bai Koroma had been criticized for failing to speak out publicly about the Ebola outbreak in his country. He promised that more would be done to protect those trying to help curb the virus, which Doctors Without Borders says is out of control. There have been several attacks on health centers and workers by local communities they're trying to help who are mistrustful and frightened of people wearing face masks and full-length protective clothing, despite awareness campaigns about a virus that was virtually unknown in the region until recently. Traditional and cultural practices are causing fear and suspicion among local people. Again, Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf.

SIRLEAF: We've asked them to stay away from taking people who are sick to prayer rooms, to witch doctors in the Bush, to their own arrangements in homes.

QUIST-ARCTON: Customary ceremonies surrounding burials are just one example of the clashing cultures facing families who lose relatives to Ebola. They're no longer allowed to wash the bodies in traditional rituals and they want to know why. Liberia's deputy health minister Bernice Dahn was recently at a regional meeting to seek a coordinated approach to these issues. She spoke about her own country.

BERNICE DAHN: For the Liberian side, there's a lot of denial. Liberians do not believe the disease exists. Culturally we are mobilizing our chiefs, our committed leaders - and the people listen to their chiefs. So if we can align their leaders to our health promotion activities, they can be our foot soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EBOLA IN TOWN")

QUIST-ARCTON: Officials and relief workers worry that with fragile health systems and the free movement of traders and travelers across West Africa's poorest borders, it'll be tough to stop the Ebola spreading in the region. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EBOLA IN TOWN")

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