Conakry - French President Francois Hollande brought a message of hope to Guinea on Friday, where thousands of residents lined the roads while clapping, drumming and dancing to catch a glimpse of the first Western leader to visit a country hard hit by Ebola.
Guinea's president greeted his French counterpart at the airport and said that if Hollande could visit the country, then anybody could.
"There is hope: The hope of those who have been cured. The hope that we can control this epidemic ... The very fact that hope exists," said Hollande, who during his roughly eight-hour visit was to tour an Ebola treatment center at the capital's main hospital and meet with French health workers.
At a meeting attended by Guinean President Alpha Conde, Hollande heard updates from aid groups. The room burst out in applause when an Ebola survivor was introduced.
Also read: French president visits Ebola-stricken Guinea
"Ebola is something else. When you do not have Ebola you have a life, you have dreams. When you have Ebola, you are treated like a dead person, even after you are cured," the survivor, Fanta Camara, told The Associated Press. Ebola survivors have been driven from their villages and fired from their jobs as they carry a huge social stigma.
Ebola has ravaged three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and sickened nearly 16,000 people, making it by far the largest Ebola outbreak in history. This epidemic has presented challenges never seen before, including infecting thousands in cities, where it has whipped around populations faster than doctors have been able to keep up, while also hitting remote areas, where it has been difficult to send help.
This has forced a new kind of response: larger treatment centers than ever before seen but also an increasing need for smaller, stripped-down care centers and rapid-response teams that can be flown into remote areas. The response has been stymied by the task of transporting potentially infectious blood samples long distances on poor roads.
The U.N.'s World Health Organization last week declared the outbreak in Guinea had "stabilized." It has reported 1,260 deaths from 2,134 cases. Oxfam-France on Thursday, though, said there is little or no reliable information about the epidemic in rural areas.
Nearly a year since the first patient died in a southeastern village of Guinea, at least 25 villages in the country's forested and mountainous southeast still refuse to allow entry by health workers who are trying to trace potential cases, according to human rights groups at a seminar this week on the response to Ebola.
The largest caseload in Guinea is currently centered around the southeast town of Macenta, where France helped open a new treatment center this month. French Red Cross official Thomas Mauget said the first cured patient left the center Thursday, but that the child's mother is still being treated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Liberia said in a telephone interview Friday that a contract will soon be signed to allow Ebola test samples and perhaps even patients to be flown by helicopter out of remote areas. The U.S. military has already airlifted rapid-response teams of epidemiologists and health officials into hard-to-reach regions areas, but it will not be transporting the blood samples, said Ambassador Deborah Malac.
Infection rates are slowing in Liberia, and the country's government has said it hopes for no new cases by Christmas. Malac cautioned that the disease is unpredictable.
"We're still getting new cases every day," she said. "None of us know for sure what will happen. All we can to do is continue to drive toward zero."
Oxfam said France should ensure coordination and allocation of resources for treatment, prevention and training. But Dr. Sakoba Keita, the national coordinator for Guinea's Ebola response, was adamant that France has been working with Guinea from the inception of the crisis.
"The first thermometers that we had to use in this country's (crisis) were given by France," he told AP.
The two countries for decades had a combative relationship since Guinea declared independence in 1958. Military dictators turned to Russia and China and snubbed the privileged relationship France cultivated with other former colonies. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1979 but only warmed after the democratic election in 2010 of Conde, who lived half his life in France in exile.
"Long live friendship and solidarity between France and Guinea," said a banner posted near Conakry's airport.